Italian journo slain in Iraq

The Qatar-based Arabic-language channel did not give many details of the death, but Italian sources in Iraq confirmed the report of Mr Baldoni’s death to Italy’s Ansa news agency.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi condemned the hostage’s execution as soon as Mr Baldoni’s death had been confirmed.

“There are no words for an inhuman act which all at once wipes out centuries of civilisation and returns us to the dark times of barbarism,” said Mr Berlusconi.

In a message of condolences to the family of the 56-year-old journalist, who was married with two children, the prime minister also expressed his compassion and solidarity, while stressing his “firm determination to fight terrorism”.

Mr Baldoni’s captors had on Tuesday threatened to kill him unless Italy withdrew its 3,000 troops from Iraq within 48 hours. The threat was made in a video also broadcast by Al-Jazeera.

The Italian government, a staunch supporter of the US-led invasion of Iraq, initially rejected the kidnappers’ ultimatum, saying it would maintain its “civil and military” presence in the oil-rich country.

But early on Thursday Rome said it was prepared to pull its soldiers out if the interim government in Baghdad requested it.

Mr Berlusconi’s government has already suffered one hostage crisis – four Italians working for a private security firm were kidnapped in April.

One was shot dead within days, but the three others were freed in June during an operation by US-led forces.

Another militant group purporting to be linked to al-Qaeda has also threatened, in several statements posted on the internet since mid-July, to attack Italian targets if Rome does not pull its troops out of Iraq.

Mr Baldoni’s colleagues at Milan weekly Diario were stunned by the report of his death.

“We were so optimistic. We couldn’t believe he wouldn’t get out,” said Mr Baldoni’s colleague Gianni Barbacetto.

Mr Baldoni, who also worked as a Red Cross volunteer, disappeared last week on the road to the holy Shiite city of Najaf, the scene of fierce fighting between US and Iraqi troops and Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.

The Islamic Army in Iraq has also claimed responsibility for the abduction of an Iranian diplomat, who went missing in Iraq earlier this month.

Dozens of foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq by armed insurgents fighting the US-led multinational coalition, with the aim of putting pressure on the captives’ governments or employers to leave the war-torn country.

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