Gabrielle Torsello's Fate Unknown

ROME – Open concern is being expressed around Italy today about the fate of kidnapped ZUMA photojournalist Gabriele Torsello, 36, as there has been no known contact with his abductors in Afghanistan for at least seven days.

Italy’s largest daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, this week quoted anonymous sources in Kabul who say they believe that certain rogue elements of Afghanistan’s police force may be behind Torsello’s kidnapping, and that the abductors are seeking “a high ransom,” possibly in secret negotiations.

On Sunday in Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI appealed on behalf of kidnapping victims around the world, denouncing their abductors in strong terms, during an address before millions of followers in Saint Peter's Square. But he failed to mention the Italian Torsello, a convert to Islam, by name.

On Saturday in Italy Silvia Heimrich, Torsello's partner, spoke before a Muslim religious celebration and appealed to the photojournalist's kidnappers to release him. "Gabriele went away to Afghanistan to give a voice to those who do not have one," she is quoted in the Gulf Times of Qatar as saying. "He wanted to speak about people's everyday life and their suffering. He loves the Muslim world very much. He loved it so much that he embraced the Islamic faith," she said.

In Rome last week, the Italian Foreign Ministry said negotiations to free Torsello were continuing. The last reported word from Torsello's kidnappers was on October 23 when they said he was still alive, although they did not allow any direct contact with him.

Initially the kidnappers said they were Taliban during their first communications after abducting Torsello out of a vehicle at gunpoint on October 12 as he traveled from Lashkargah to Kandahar in Afghanistan. But the recognized offical spokesperson for the Taliban, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, has denied any connection with the kidnapping and Taliban leaders have repeatedly called for Torsello’s release.

Lord Nazir Ahmed, Britain's first Muslim Lord and a friend of Torsello, has joined with Italian Muslims, the Italian Foreign Ministry, and the Taliban in calling for Torsello's abductors in Afghanistan to release him immediately.

At a press conference last week in London arranged by the National Union of Journalists, Lord Ahmed said, "I was horrified to learn that he has been arrested by five bandits, who are holding him in Afghanistan, and I call upon these people to release him immediately and unconditionally."

Lord Ahmed's comments were reported to the Muslim world by Aljazeera. Torsello's book, The Heart of Kashmir, contains a foreword written by Lord Ahmed, who has known the photojournalist for eight years, he says.

In Kabul, Taliban spokesman Ahmadi said that Torsello should be set free. "The abductors who claimed they were Taliban did so to defame us," Ahmadi told the Pajhwok Afghan News by phone from an undisclosed location. They quote the spokesman as saying that Torsello is "innocent, and should not be made to pay for the actions of the Italian government."

The Pajhwok Afghan News also quotes Ahmadi as saying, "The kidnappers of the Italian journalist are robbers and they have abducted the journalist for money. We will drag them to court if we find them."

In southern Italy, Torsello's parents called on the kidnappers to release their son to celebrate the end of Ramadan. "This is a day of joy for them," Vittoria Augenti told reporters outside their home. "May they celebrate together with Gabriele."

In Rome the Union of Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII) used their Web site to urge the kidnappers to release Torsello, saying that kidnapping is "religiously unacceptable." Noting that Torsello is a convert to Islam, they said, "Kash Torsello, like other journalists who work in war zones, record horror so it can be seen and stopped."

Torsello was kidnapped at gunpoint October 12 in Afghanistan by five men who said they would kill him if their demands for the release of Abdul Rahman, and the removal of Italian troops from Afghanistan, were not met by their deadline of sunday at the end of Ramadan.

Rahman, 41, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working as a volunteer with an aid group helping refugees in Pakistan, left Afghanistan in March and was granted asylum in Italy after he was charged with leaving Islam. The charge is punishable by the death penalty in Afghanistan.

When he was abducted, Torsello was riding in a vehicle on a highway between Lashkargah and Kandahar. ZUMA Press director Scott Mc Kiernan says that Torsello’s translator, Ghulam Mohammad, who is Afghan and who was travelling with the photographer, says that five armed men stopped the bus and searched it. "Torsello was the only foreigner on the bus," Mc Kiernan said, meaning the other riders were all Afghan. "They came on and took him."

Based in London, Torsello had been in Afghanistan for more than a month covering the plight of Afghans in a war zone, with a special focus on medical issues. He had been shooting pictures of an Italian NGO, a medical volunteer group called Emergency, for about a week before leaving on the bus for Kandahar.