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Italy vows to defy Iraq kidnappers

Al-Arabiya TV image of Italian hostages held by insurgents in Iraq.
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Italian diplomat tries to secure release of three surviving hostages. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports. (April 15)
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Would you turn out to protest when told by Iraqi militants that if you don't, hostages will die?

ROME, Italy -- Italian politicians have condemned a threat by Iraqi militants to kill three hostages unless Italians protest over the presence of their country's troops in Iraq.

But relatives of the hostages on Tuesday urged Italians to help set the men free and take part in rallies on Wednesday and Thursday -- not to denounce the government but to call for the release of the three Italian security workers.

The threat was made in a videotape aired by Arabic TV station Al-Arabiya on Monday by a group calling itself the Green Brigade.

The tape showed the hostages -- Salvatore Stefio, Umberto Cupertino and Maurizio Agliana -- sitting around a table eating. Their captors claim the hostages are spies but the Italian government says they were working for a private U.S. security firm.

A fourth man, abducted with the others near Baghdad on April 12, was executed after the kidnappers demanded the withdrawal of the 2,700 Italian troops.

The group gave Italians five days to organize the demonstrations or, a statement said, the three hostages would be killed.

Leaders have since been rallying around Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition, vowing Italy would not give in to blackmail.

"We, who were against the war, are completely opposed to any negotiation with kidnappers and terrorists. The government is continuing to work with seriousness and discretion for the release of the hostages," Francesco Rutelli, leader of the center-left Daisy party, told Reuters.

Berlusconi's office said in a statement the government was doing all it could to secure their release.

But families and friends of the men said there was no time to lose.

"I'm asking that all the mothers and fathers in Italy do everything they can so that our boys can come home," Angelo Stefio, the father of one of the hostages, told Reuters. "We need everyone."

Marches are being organised in the captives' hometowns for Wednesday and in Rome on Thursday, but it was unclear how much support they would get.

Italians largely opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq and the deployment of some 2,700 peacekeeping Italian troops after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But they also appeared to be against giving in to the hostage-takers' demands.

"To accept blackmail is impossible," one man in Rome said.

"We'll demonstrate on May Day like every year and like every year we'll demonstrate for peace as well. We cannot do more than this."

On the Italians, the militant group's statement, dated Sunday, said they were taken hostage because they were found spying in Iraq. On the videotape one of the alleged hostages speaks briefly in Italian, but it was not possible to determine what he said.

"We tell you we will show good faith and free them if you sympathize with our cause, show solidarity with us and publicly reject the policy of your prime minister by staging a big protest in your capital to protest against the war," said the group's statement.

"We grant you five days after which we will kill them without any hesitation or any other warning."

The killing of the first hostage, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, by Iraqi militants provoked shock in Italy as fears grew about the safety of foreign nationals working with the U.S.-led coalition.

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