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Afghans in contact with kidnappers of aid worker
Updated: 2005-05-18 18:36

KABUL - An Italian aid worker kidnapped from her car in the Afghan capital is well and Afghan authorities are in contact with her kidnappers, officials said on Wednesday.

Clementina Cantoni, 32, who works for the CARE International aid agency, was snatched on Monday evening when gunmen stopped her vehicle on a central Kabul street and bundled her into a white Toyota car.

The abduction raised fresh fears among Kabul's 2,000-strong foreign community of Iraq-style kidnappings by anti-government insurgents. But investigators did not suspect Taliban rebels or al Qaeda militants, officials said.

The government suspected a gang of criminals seeking the release of their detained leader was responsible, but Afghan and Italian officials have declined to elaborate on that suspicion, or to give details of efforts to secure Cantoni's freedom.

"We are in contact with the person who has kidnapped her," said Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.

"He got in touch with us yesterday afternoon, using her phone. She also spoke and said she was fine," he said.

Mashal declined to identify the kidnappers but said they were not from a political or militant group, and were not members of a criminal gang, as originally suspected.

He also declined to reveal the kidnappers' demands saying they were "unimportant" and would not be met.

Cantoni was most likely still in Kabul and authorities were hopeful she would be freed soon, he said.


Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said on Tuesday his government knew Cantoni was well.

A source close to the negotiations told Reuters in Rome what the kidnappers wanted was not clear. "Contact has been made in order to clarify the aim of the incident," the source said.

Negotiators had heard Cantoni's voice in a recorded statement played over the telephone, the source said.

In Kabul, an embassy official confirmed those details but declined to elaborate. Various agencies were working well together on the case, he said.

"All the concerned bodies are involved and this coordination is starting to give results ... We are reasonably optimistic," he said.

CARE International declined to comment. The Taliban have denied kidnapping Cantoni.

President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, said on Tuesday members of a gang of robbers demanding the release of jailed comrades, including their leader, Tela Mohammad, were believed responsible.

The same gang kidnapped three U.N. election workers in October in Kabul. They were released 27 days later.

Mohammad and several of his gang were recently detained and other gang members had recently threatened to kidnap foreigners to secure their comrades' release, Ludin said.

Afghan police and NATO troops have set up checkpoints around Kabul and policewomen have been checking women in burqas in case the kidnappers tried to smuggle Cantoni out.

Afghanistan has seen a surge in kidnap for ransom, including of children, since the ousting of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces in 2001. Aid agencies have warned staff in recent weeks after two unsuccessful attempts to kidnap foreigners in Kabul.

Cantoni has lived in Afghanistan for more than three years, most recently helping 10,000 war widows and their children.

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