Italians rally for peace to free hostages in Iraq

Captors ordered protest

some see it as blackmail

April 30, 2004|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME - Waving rainbow-striped flags for peace, Italians marched to the front steps of the Vatican on yesterday to show solidarity with three Italian men taken hostage in Iraq - just days after the Iraqi captors ordered they do so.

In a video shown on Arabic satellite television on Monday, the hostage-takers demanded Italians rise up in protest against their government's decision to maintain troops in Iraq. In exchange, the militants said they would spare the lives of the hostages. They gave a deadline of five days.

Some Italians - including the government and most of the opposition - charged that staging the march yesterday would be caving in to blackmail. They stayed away.

But others, led by the families of the captured men and backed by Pope John Paul II, insisted any gesture was worth making. One of the original four Italians seized on April 12 already has been executed by his captors.

"If we do not do this perhaps it will be too late," the father of one of the hostages, Angelo Stefio, told reporters at the start of the demonstration.

Organizers attempted to keep politics out of the march. Several thousand people walked in relative silence from the Castel Sant'Angelo, one-time hiding place of medieval popes, over the Tiber River and down the Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter's Basilica. But toward the end, some in the crowd erupted in chants against the war and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

In an unusual move, the marchers were allowed to file into the square in front of St. Peter's. Demonstrations are normally not permitted inside the Vatican city-state. They were greeted by bishops from the hometowns of the three hostages and then heard a message from the pope, read by a senior Vatican official, imploring the men be strong and urging they be released.

The march, which was much smaller than other anti-war demonstrations held in Italy, was apparently shown in the Arab world on satellite TV.

The three Italian men and a fourth, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, were captured somewhere between Baghdad and Fallujah on April 12 during a rash of kidnappings that terrorized Westerners in Iraq.The Italians worked for a private U.S. security company as guards.

Quattrocchi was shot to death two days later. His death was taped and the tape delivered to Al-Jazeera television, but satellite channels chose not to show it, saying the images were too grisly.

Berlusconi said his government was doing everything possible to free the men but would not "negotiate with terrorists." Continental Europe's most vocal U.S. ally, he repeatedly has refused to consider withdrawing an estimated 2,700 Italian troops from Iraq.

"If we pull out, there will be a civil war," Berlusconi said this week.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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