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Captors in Iraq Free Italian Aid Workers

Rome Welcomes Pair Held for 3 Weeks; Some Egyptian Hostages Also Released

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; Page A21

BAGHDAD, Sept. 28 -- Two Italian aid workers held hostage in Iraq for three weeks were freed on Tuesday and immediately flown to a rapturous homecoming in Rome.

Meanwhile, at least four of six Egyptians abducted last week from the office of a mobile telephone company have been released over the past two days, the firm announced.

Aid workers Simona Pari, left, and Simona Torretta arrive to a joyous reception from family members and dignitaries at Rome's Ciampino airport. (Andrew Medichini -- AP)

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Pari, Torretta, Video Italian Hostages Video: Kidnappers released two Italian aid workers after three weeks of captivity in Iraq.
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The Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, were dragged from their aid organization's Baghdad office on Sept. 7. Their fate had been in question, and concern grew last week after they were falsely reported to have been beheaded. About a dozen other foreigners taken hostage in Iraq have been killed in that manner, including two Americans who were decapitated on Sept. 20 and 21.

But all doubts about the Italians evaporated late Tuesday when they were shown on Arabic-language television, lifting black veils and smiling as they were handed over to a representative of the Italian Red Cross, Maurizio Scelli.

The women were immediately flown to Rome's Ciampino airport, where they were joined by their families before stepping off the aircraft and into a crowd of military personnel and officials, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The women wore long white caftans, smiled and held hands, appearing serene as they were ushered into the airport building.

"The two girls are well and tonight can embrace their loved ones," Berlusconi said.

In South Rome and in Rimini on the Adriatic coast, crowds gathered around the homes of the two women as news of their release circulated late Tuesday afternoon. The kidnapping had been keenly felt by Italians, largely because the women -- who became known across the country as "the two Simonas" or "our girls" -- had gone to Iraq to provide humanitarian aid.

Gianluca DeAngelis, 31, a lawyer from Rome, said he felt "happiness, joy, super relief" at the women's release. "Let's hope this is the moment for Italy to get out of Iraq," he said.

Berlusconi told Parliament that his government had worked "day and night" to bring about the happy ending, holding 16 negotiating sessions before arriving at a resolution.

A Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Rai al-Aam, which had reported the women's imminent release for the past two days, said their captors had agreed to accept a $1 million ransom. But Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said no ransom had been paid, according to state-run RAI television, and Berlusconi said: "I believe our behavior has been beyond reproach."

Here in Baghdad, Orascom Telecom, which employed the six kidnapped Egyptians and holds the valuable cell phone franchise in central Iraq, declined to directly answer questions about a ransom, according to news services.

The hostage releases came as fighting persisted in parts of the country, prompting a suggestion from one Iraqi leader that it might be wise to postpone elections planned for January rather than hold them only in areas that were largely peaceful.

"The idea of having partial elections is very appalling," said President Ghazi Yawar, whose post is largely ceremonial. He said Iraq's stability would depend on balloting that included every constituency.

Yawar's remarks appeared to put him at odds with Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, and U.S. officials who have said elections should proceed as promised even if insurgents hold parts of the country. But King Abdullah of neighboring Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, also voiced caution about holding a partial vote.

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