KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) – An Italian freelance photographer and his assistant were abducted by five armed men in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official said Sunday.

Gabriele Torsello and his Afghan translator were kidnapped Saturday as they drove from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, to Kandahar, an official in Helmand said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The two were in their car when they were abducted, according to the official, who said he spoke to witnesses.

Maso Notarianni, the director of the Italian online magazine Peace Reporter, told Italian state TV that Torsello had called a hospital in Lashkar Gah, apparently to let authorities know he had been kidnapped.

“Until Thursday he was in the deep south of Afghanistan, in Taliban-controlled territory,” Notarianni said.

Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, denied the militants abducted the pair.

Ahmadi, whose exact ties to the militants are not known, told an Associated Press reporter in Kandahar in a phone call from an undisclosed location that Torsello had spend some time with Taliban fighters in Musa Qala “who showed him the area.”

The kidnapping of journalists is rare in Afghanistan, although insurgents have periodically targeted foreigners or Afghans known to be assisting foreign troops or internationally funded reconstruction projects.

The Italian ambassador in Kabul, Ettore Francesco Sequi, told Italian state radio Sunday morning that Italian Foreign Ministry officials were in Afghanistan working on the case.

An official at the Italian Embassy in Kabul said the purported kidnappers have not contacted the embassy or made any demands known to them. The official was not authorized to talk to the media on the issue and requested anonymity.

The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar have been the scene of the most intense fighting between Taliban and NATO troops this year, in the worst upsurge in violence in the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Taliban regime from power.

Torsello’s abduction comes a week after two German journalists working for that country’s national broadcaster were killed in northern Afghanistan – the first foreign journalists murdered in the country since late 2001.

“Coming so soon, after the (death of the German reporters) … this is a matter of great concern for all of the international community and for the Afghan authorities,” said Aleem Sidique, a United Nations spokesman in Kabul.

Maj. Luke Knittig, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said they were informed by another reporter, whom he did not identify, that Torsello had not been in contact for the last three days and that they were trying to locate him. The alliance could not confirm the kidnapping.

Afghan security forces detained Torsello twice during his nearly one-month stay in southern Afghanistan, said Ghulam Nabi Malakheil, Helmand’s police chief. He was quickly released both times once authorities confirmed his identity, he said.

Malakheil said police have not detained him this time around.

In other violence, clashes in the east left at least three police and three militants killed.

Also Sunday, two gunmen on a motorbike killed a Kandahar provincial council member, Mohammed Younis Hussein, as he walked out of his house in the Kandahar city, said Muhammed Qahir Khan, a doctor at a local hospital.

On Sunday, a blast targeting Americans training Afghan police killed two civilians and wounded another in the western province or Herat, said Noor Khan Nekzad, spokesman for the provincial police chief. No Americans were injured.

Associated Press writer Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-15-06 1957EDT

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