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Kidnappers Demand Exchange For Afghan Convert

October 18, 2006 -- An Italian news website says abductors in Afghanistan of Italian photojournalist Gabriele Torsello want to exchange him for an Afghan man who converted to Christianity and lives in Italy.

The Italian-based "PeaceReporter" website says the demand to exchange Torsello for 41-year-old Abdul Rahman was made through an Italian nongovernmental aid agency in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The group says the demand came in a phone call to the Afghan security adviser of a hospital that Torsello visited just before his October 12 abduction.

"PeaceReporter" correspondent Enrico Piovesana says the security adviser, Rakhmattullah Hanefi, told him the kidnappers threatened to kill Torsello unless the Italian government sent Rahman back to Afghanistan by the end of Ramadan, which is midnight on October 22.

Italy granted political asylum to Rahman in March after he was freed by Afghanistan's Supreme Court. The court ruled Rahman was mentally unfit to stand trial for his conversion to Christianity -- a crime under Afghanistan's interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law that could carry the death sentence.

'Serious About Their Threat'

Hanefi confirmed to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that he received the kidnappers' phone call and spoke about it to "PeaceReporter." But he said he has since been warned not to speak to journalists and referred all questions to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

The Italian Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL today that it is not prepared to offer any immediate comment.

But Piovesana agreed to speak to RFE/RL today about his interview with the security adviser.

"If their demands are not satisfied, they said that the hostage will be killed," Piovesana said. "They didn't want to speak about money. They said that they are very serious about their threat. Of course, to repatriate a person that has political asylum in Italy is against Italian law."

Hostage Also Muslim

Piovesana called it ironic that Torsello himself is a convert to Islam who prayed with Muslim hospital workers in Lashkar Gah just before he was kidnapped.

Those hospital workers say they gave the independent journalist a prayer rug that he was carrying with him when he was abducted. Piovesana says Torsello's wife, his father, other family members, and friends in Italy also have confirmed his conversion to Islam.

Although purported Taliban spokesmen say they know nothing about Torsello's abduction, Piovesana says the kidnappers made it clear in their phone call that they are Taliban.

"Since the first communication, they said, 'We are Taliban and we are an independent Taliban group,'" Piovesana said. "There are many different groups. Maybe this is an independent group. But they define themselves as Taliban, specifying that they are an independent Taliban group."

Piovesana said the security adviser also told him that he was allowed to speak with Torsello briefly on the evening of October 18, confirming that the callers actually were holding him.

"The situation is very hard. And at the moment, it is very difficult to understand how it is going to develop in the next few days," Piovesana said. "For sure, we know that there will be new telephone contacts with the kidnappers. For now, we are waiting for a response by the Italian government -- by the Italian Foreign Ministry."

(RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Salih Mohammad Salih in Lashkar Gah contributed to this story.)