Two Italian soldiers missing in Afghanistan

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ROME, Sept 23 (Reuters) Two Italian soldiers have gone missing while on patrol in western Afghanistan, Italian authorities said today.

The two men went missing in western Afghanistan where more than 600 Italian troops run the regional command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), based in the city of Herat. Italy has some 2,200 troops in all Afghanistan.

Earlier agency reports said two Italians, possibly journalists, had been kidnapped in the west of Afghanistan.

''Contact with two Italian soldiers was lost some hours ago,'' the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. ''From our checks no journalists are missing, contrary to early reports,'' it said.

The Italian Defence Ministry also issued a statement saying two soldiers were missing and their families had been informed.

A Defence Ministry spokesman said the two soldiers disappeared ''during a normal patrol in the zone we cover in western Afghanistan''. He would not confirm they had been kidnapped and would not give their names or rank.

A Taliban spokesman said he was checking to see if insurgents had kidnapped the Italians.

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

He said the men, together with two Afghan translators, had gone missing yesterday in the area around Shindand, on the border between Farah and Herat provinces, the 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.

Italy's prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister were following the situation closely, the foreign ministry said.

The president of the senate defence committee, Sergio De Gregorio, said he had spoken to Defence Minister Arturo Parisi.

''The two kidnapped soldiers had the task of handling relations with the local institutions,'' he told reporters.

Taliban insurgents have suffered heavy casualties in conventional clashes with Western forces in Afghanistan and have switched to suicide bombing and kidnapping to undermine popular faith in the ability of the Afghan 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.

REUTERS SG RN1925

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