Reijo Kemppinen, the spokesman for commission President Romano Prodi, told journalists in Brussels today that the aid workers must be released unharmed: "These people were working for highly respected Italian NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that were close partners of our humanitarian office ECHO [European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office]. We firmly condemn these inhuman acts [the kidnappings] that can find no justification. We call on the kidnappers to free the relief workers unharmed."
The aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, work with children for the Italian nongovernmental organization Bridge to Baghdad. They were abducted when men armed with AK-47 assault rifles raided their offices in central Baghdad. Two Iraqi aid workers were also seized.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi today held emergency meetings with Italian officials to discuss the abduction.
Kemppinen warned that attacks on aid workers will harm ordinary Iraqis who still depend on outside assistance. He hinted at the possibility that the EU might need to cut its aid if it cannot be delivered.
"We find this development highly and deeply concerning. The fact is that when they start kidnapping humanitarian workers it is not only a tragedy for the victims and their families, but it also undermines humanitarian values, the very basic humanitarian values," Kemppinen said. "The fact is that without these we will not be able to continue our work, which is to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqis who still remain deeply dependent on our help."
The commission's humanitarian aid arm ECHO is not itself active in crisis areas. Commission officials say ECHO works through NGOs and UN agencies that are present on the ground. Such organizations routinely apply for EU funding, and their security is the organization's own responsibility.
However, the commission's humanitarian aid spokesman Jean-Charles Ellermann-Kingombe said today that the EU is "very aware" of the security situation in Iraq.
He said the commission has already taken a number of measures to ease the threat to aid workers. The commission has allowed NGOs to avoid sending foreigners to Iraq itself and monitor their local staff in Iraq from neighboring Jordan.
The commission finances a coordinating body for locally active NGOs in Baghdad.
It also funds security courses in the Jordanian capital Amman for foreign personnel bound for Iraq.
Ellermann-Kingombe said that the 7 September kidnappings, by themselves, will not bring an end to EU relief work in Iraq: "As far ECHO is concerned, we will continue our activities to the extent that NGOs are willing to stay on the ground and implement them. There's still a need for aid that we're delivering and that's why we'll continue."
However, the events will undoubtedly have a negative effect on evolving plans to set up a commission representation in Baghdad. The Iraqi government has repeatedly asked the EU to raise its visibility in Iraq and set up offices.