updated 11/21/2006 6:03:30 PM ET 2006-11-21T23:03:30

Two Italian Red Cross workers kidnapped Tuesday afternoon were released shortly after midnight, Palestinian security officials said.

Just before their release, the Red Cross said it was suspending its activities in the Gaza Strip, fearing for the safety of its workers.

The abductions — the latest in a series of kidnappings of foreigners in the chaotic territory in recent months — dealt a serious blow to aid efforts in the impoverished zone.

Iyad Nasr, a spokesman for the Red Cross’s Gaza office, said the organization had ceased all field operations and would intervene only “in matters of life and death.” Workers have been ordered to stay in their offices because of fears for their safety, he said.

Over the past two years, there has been a rash of kidnappings of foreign aid workers and journalists in Gaza, usually by groups or families pressing the government for money or job guarantees. In most cases, the hostages were quickly released. None have been seriously harmed.

The Red Cross facilitates movement of ambulances and emergency supplies in the violence-wracked territory. The open-ended suspension of its activities means further hardships.

Taken at gunpoint
The Red Cross said Claudio Moroni, 36, and Gianmarco Onorato, 63, were abducted in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza after their car was stopped by gunmen. Palestinian security officials said one of the Red Cross workers was traveling on a Canadian passport. It was not known which one.

There was no immediate word on the conditions of the released aid workers.

Prior to their release, Palestinian security officials said they searched for the two and mediation efforts were carried ouit.

In Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema said he had been “constantly informed” about the developments in the kidnapping of the two.

He said in a statement he had given orders to “activate all possible channels” to obtain the release of the two men, and had taken some “personal initiatives” in that direction. He did not elaborate.

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