Gunmen Say They Will Kill Photojournalist Monday Unless Demands Met

Oct 20, 2006

DANA POINT, CA – Kidnapped Italian ZUMA photojournalist Gabriele Torsello, abducted at gunpoint on October 12 by five gunmen in Afghanistan, has appealed to fellow journalists and the media to help him gain his release. ZUMA founder and director Scott Mc Kiernan today said that Torsello has communicated that he is under constant threat and extreme pressure from his kidnappers, contradicting earlier messages when he said that he was well and being moved around by his abductors.

Mc Kiernan says that ZUMA’s sources in Afghanistan have relayed to him last night the news of Torsello’s latest cell phone messages. He says Torsello said, "The kidnappers frequently tell me that I am a spy and that British troops bombed Musa Qala and Nawzad districts (based) on my intelligence."

Torsello says he does not know where he is now, as the kidnappers have kept him blindfolded. ZUMA’s sources in Afghanistan said the abductors repeatedly interrupted Torsello’s phone call to repeat their demands of handing over an Afghan convert to Christianity, who was granted asylum by Italy, and the withdrawal of Italian forces from Afghanistan.

"A man speaking harshly warned if the Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman is not handed over to an Islamic court for trial, and unless Italian soldiers leave Afghanistan, they will kill the journalist by Monday midnight," Mc Kiernan's sources in Afghanistan said.

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.

News reports today say that Italy's defense minister has ruled out a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as demanded by the kidnappers. Defense minister Arturo Parisi has said Italian troops will stay in Afghanistan despite the kidnappers’ new demand. In Rome, the Foreign Ministry says it is working for Torsello’s release.

Contrary to their first claims of being Talibans, the kidnappers have now distanced themselves from the Taliban and say they are "just Muslims fighting foreign occupation" in war-torn Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi has repeated their denial of being involved with the kidnapping, and the Taliban have not made any demands.

When he was abducted Thursday, Torsello was riding on a bus on a highway between Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar. 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."

The kidnappers have set a deadline of sunset Monday, October 23, the official end of the Islamic holiday Ramadan, for the exchange.

Based in London, Torsello has 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. Torsello’s parents live in Italy, and he has two children living in the UK, Mc Kiernan said.