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.
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.
"It seems impossible to me to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today," Abdullah told the French daily Le Figaro. "If the elections take place in the current disorder, the best-organized faction will be that of the extremists, and the result will reflect that advantage."
In Samarra, one of several cities beyond the evident control of the interim government and the 160,000-strong U.S.-led military force backing it, insurgents paraded through downtown. For two hours, several dozen gunmen in about 20 vehicles drove through the main streets of the city, about 65 miles north of Baghdad. U.S. troops last entered Samarra unopposed on Sept. 9.
The Associated Press reported that some insurgents waved the black banners of Monotheism and Jihad, the organization headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the elusive Jordanian who has asserted responsibility for the killings of several hostages and attacks on U.S. and allied forces.
In the western city of Fallujah, which American forces last entered in April, two U.S. F-15Es dropped a pair of 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a residence that the military said housed lieutenants of Zarqawi.
U.S. forces also clashed with insurgents in Baghdad, fighting Shiite Muslim militiamen in the Sadr City district and insurgents along Haifa Street, another stubborn hotbed of resistance near the capital's center.
In the country's far south, in Basra, two British soldiers were fatally shot on Tuesday as they struggled to extract wounded soldiers from an armored Land Rover that had come under attack. The deaths brought to 68 the number of Britons killed in Iraq since April 2003. American military deaths total 1,051.
Five Iraqi intelligence officers were reported killed in a separate incident in Basra. The men were cut down by small-arms fire as they brought home a kidnapping victim recovered from a gang, according to the AP.
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.