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Afghanistan: Kidnappers Present Demands For Italian Aid Worker

A man claiming to be one of the kidnappers of an Italian aid worker in Afghanistan has spelled out demands for her release in a phone call to RFE/RL. The demands suggest the kidnappers are Islamic fundamentalists. But the Taliban has denied any connection to the kidnapping of the CARE International worker.

Prague 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Afghan Interior Ministry tells RFE/RL that it is convinced the telephone call was made by one of those holding Clementina Cantoni, a 32-year-old employee of the CARE International aid agency.

RFE/RL's Kabul bureau received the phone call early today from a man who identified himself as Timor Shah from the village of Qala Jala in the Mosaie District of Kabul Province.

He said he was one of the armed men who seized Cantoni from her car in central Kabul on Monday evening and that she will be released if the Afghan government meets three demands, which he said are "legitimate" and consistent with Islamic Sharia law.

The first demand was for the cancellation of a Wednesday-night youth program on Radio Arman, a private Kabul radio station.

The caller also complained that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has destroyed the livelihood of farmers across the country. He described poppy farming as "against Sharia," and demanded greater state efforts to eradicate poppy crops. He also said that the import and sale of alcohol should be completely banned in Afghanistan. Under current Afghan law, it is forbidden for Afghan nationals to consume alcohol. Foreigners are allowed to buy alcohol in designated places.
An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman said the demands of the kidnappers were "unimportant" and would not be met.

The caller said his group also is concerned about the way schools and other educational institutions are operated in Afghanistan. He said the kidnappers want Islamic boarding schools, known as madrassahs, to be opened:

"We have these three demands," the caller said. "If they are met, we can release the lady safe and sound."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office has confirmed that it is aware of the demands but offered no immediate comment.

Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told Reuters today that the demands of the kidnappers were "unimportant" and would not be met.

Mashal says Interior Ministry officials were contacted yesterday by a kidnapper who identified himself by the same name as the person who phoned RFE/RL. Mashal says Afghan authorities were allowed to speak briefly to Cantoni yesterday and that she said she was doing well under the circumstances.

Mashal confirmed that the calls to both the Interior Ministry and RFE/RL's Kabul bureau were made on Cantoni's mobile telephone. When RFE/RL asked to speak to Cantoni, the caller said she was in another location.

Mashal said the kidnappers are not from a political or militant group and were not members of a criminal gang -- as the government originally had suspected. He told RFE/RL today he is confident Cantoni will be released unharmed.

"If she isn't released peacefully, the government and security forces have enough security measures," Mashal said. "But we feel sure that the issue will not come to that and she will be released peacefully. We are very much optimistic about the process of the talks and the developments."

CARE International has declined to comment. But Major Karen Tissot van Parot, a spokeswoman for the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force, confirmed that CARE is working with Italian officials and the Afghan Interior Miistry on the case.

"ISAF will continue to provide all available assistance to the Afghan government in arranging for the release of the aid worker who was abducted. I understand that the Ministry of Interior is working with the Italian Embassy and CARE International to resolve this issue," she said.

The abduction has raised fresh fears among some 2,000 foreigners in Kabul of Iraq-style kidnappings by antigovernment insurgents.

Cantoni is the latest of several Italians taken hostage over the last year. The others were seized in Iraq and most were freed after Italian government mediation efforts that many allege involved the payment of ransom.

Crispian Balmer is Rome bureau chief for Reuters news agency. He tells RFE/RL that Italy categorically denies ever paying ransom, but the widespread perception that it does make such payments could be making Italians an attractive target for kidnappers.

After the murder in Iraq of Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari, Balmer said, "there were a lot of press comments saying that Italy had to change its approach to hostage takers, that Italy was perceived as a soft touch amongst the hostage takers, and therefore Italian citizens abroad were increasingly at risk. And perhaps now, with another Italian taken hostage, this issue will again be brought to the fore and people will be looking very, very closely at how Italy deals with this situation."

Many in the Italian media allege that ransom was used when Calipari helped secure the release in Iraq of a kidnapped Italian reporter in early March. He was later shot and killed by U.S. troops at a roadblock in what Washington dubbed an accident.

(RFE/RL's Kabul bureau and Afghan Service contributed to this report; Sharifa Sharif, Ahmad Takal, and Hashem Mohmand in Prague; Amin Mohammad Mudaqiq and Ahmad Arman in Kabul.)