Two Italian soldiers kidnapped in Afghanistan

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ROME, Sep 23 (Reuters) Two Italian soldiers have been kidnapped while on patrol in western Afghanistan, Italy's defence ministry said today.

''We believe they have been kidnapped together with two Afghans,'' a ministry statement said, noting the situation was ''still not clear''.

Italy has some 2,200 troops in Afghanistan. More than 600 are in western Afghanistan running the regional command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The ministry said it had lost contact on Saturday with the two soldiers, who were operating in the Shindad district in the Herat province and were responsible for relations with civil authorities.

A Taliban spokesman said he was checking whether insurgents had kidnapped the Italians.

In New York, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a UN meeting he had information on the possible whereabouts of the Italians and would give it to Italian Foreign Minister Massimo d'Alema, participants at the session said.

Both men were attending a closed-door meeting on Afghanistan ahead of Tuesday's UN General Assembly ministerial session.

D'Alema told reporters afterwards he had spoken to Iranian diplomats, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as Karzai. They were all committed to finding the Italian soldiers.

An Afghan-based Western security analyst said there were reports the missing men were working for Italian intelligence.

He said the men, together with two Afghan translators, had gone missing in the area around Shindand, site of a sprawling former Soviet air base now used by US and Afghan forces.

Herat is one of the most peaceful provinces in Afghanistan, but in Farah to the south there has been a steady rise in Taliban activity in recent months.

Taliban insurgents have suffered heavy casualties in clashes with Western forces in Afghanistan and have switched to suicide bombing and kidnapping to undermine popular faith in the ability of the government and its Western allies to deliver security.

The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Koreans, two Germans and five Afghans in July, killing two Koreans and a German and later freeing the other Koreans. They are still holding the other German and the Afghans.

In May 2005 Italian aid worker was Clementina Cantoni was kidnapped in Kabul and released three weeks later.

In October 2006, freelance reporter Gabriele Torsello was kidnapped near Kabul and released to following month, and in March 2007 Daniele Mastrogiacomo, correspondent for daily la Repubblica, was kidnapped, to be released two weeks later.

REUTERS AB RN2350

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