msnbc.com news services
updated 3/7/2006 9:45:01 AM ET 2006-03-07T14:45:01

Pope Benedict XVI called Tuesday for the immediate and unconditional release of a 17-month-old epileptic boy kidnapped from his parents’ northern Italian home last week.

Benedict expressed solidarity with the family of Tommaso Onofri and assured them he was praying for them.

The pope’s message was sent in a telegram to the bishop of Parma from the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

The letter said the pope joined in Bishop Cesare Bonicelli’s appeal “for the immediate and unconditional release of little Tommaso Onofri, expressing his solidarity with the parents and relatives struck by profound anxiety over the brutal kidnapping.”

Red Cross televises procedure
The case has horrified Italians, particularly because the boy needs medication to control his epileptic seizures.

On Monday, the Italian Red Cross staged a televised demonstration on how to administer the medication.

Tommaso, who needs an anti-convulsive medicine twice a day, was abducted by two men on Thursday from his home in Casalbaroncolo near Parma in northern Italy.

Since then a picture of wide-eyed, curly-haired Tommaso wearing a blue and red clown costume, has been splashed on the front pages of all newspapers as politicians, priests, leading singers and soccer players have appealed for his release.

At the weekend, Tommaso’s mother appeared on television in tears to urge kidnappers to give him regular doses of the anti-epilepsy drug he is taking, as police struggled to come up with a motive for the abduction.

The Onofri family is not rich and investigators say that no ransom has been demanded so far.

2 masked men
Paolo and Paola Onofri say they were eating dinner at home with Tommaso and his eight-year-old brother Sebastiano when the lights went out.

When Paolo went outside to investigate he was forced back into the house by two masked men armed with a knife and what his wife told police appeared to have been a toy gun.

She gave the intruders 150 euros ($180) but instead of searching the house for a bigger bounty, they bound and gagged the family, took the screaming Tommaso from his highchair and fled.

Sebastiano has confirmed his parents’ story and investigators, who at first appeared to suspect foul play within the family, seem now to think the kidnapping was carried out as a vendetta or as a means of extracting money.

They have repeatedly questioned Tommaso’s father, who is the manager of a local post office, to find out whether a disgruntled customer might have wanted revenge.

The anti-mafia police have also joined the probe after a jailed informer said he knew something about the case.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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