Italy's government dismissed reports Wednesday that it paid $1 million to free two Italian aid workers who were kidnapped in Iraq and held for three weeks before being released Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini attributed the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta to "all the good things Italy has done" in Iraq. But hours earlier, the head of Parliament's foreign affairs committee and a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party said flatly that money "was paid."
"It was right, because the life of the two girls was more important than money," Gustavo Selva, a legislator, told reporters. "In principle, we shouldn't give into blackmail, but this time we had to, although it's a dangerous path. I think it was paid by the intelligence services."
On a day when the two Italians were national heroes here and said they would like to return to Iraq, a British man still held captive in Iraq pleaded with Prime Minister Tony Blair to save his life.
A video posted on the Internet showed a chained and caged Kenneth Bigley, 62, saying: "Tony Blair, I am begging you for my life. Have some compassion. Only you can help me now."
Bigley was shown making a similar plea last week after his kidnappers beheaded two Americans who were abducted with him. Accusing Blair on Wednesday of not taking any steps to secure his release, Bigley said between sobs that the British leader "doesn't care about me. I am just one person."
Speaking to reporters in the English seaside resort of Brighton at his political party's annual conference, Blair said "everything possible" was being done to free Bigley but that British authorities were not able to contact the kidnappers.
"We can't make contact with them, and they have made no attempt to make contact with us," he said. "If they made contact with us, it is something we would immediately respond to."
Blair said he was "absolutely sickened" by Bigley's ordeal.
Bigley's family, meanwhile, responded with their own videotaped plea to the abductors. Bigley's son Craig noted that his father was nearing retirement and was soon to be a grandfather and that Bigley's mother, 86, had been hospitalized.
"We, as a family, feel that the ultimate decision to release him rests with you, the people who are holding him," Craig Bigley said. "We once again ask you, please show mercy to my father and release him."
More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, apparently by a variety of groups that have issued different demands. Some -- like Monotheism and Jihad, the group claiming to hold Bigley -- have sought concessions from the United States and other countries that have troops or civilian workers in Iraq. Others have simply sought ransom payments.
After Pari and Torretta, both 29, were abducted from their Baghdad office along with two Iraqi humanitarian workers, Italians closely followed their fate, as alarming Internet messages carried threats to kill the pair if Italy did not withdraw its 2,700 troops. But when a Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Rai al-Aam, reported this week that the women would be freed, it said that the Italian government had secured their release with a ransom payment.
On Wednesday, the paper's managing editor, Ali Roz, told the Reuters news agency that the captors had originally demanded $5 million but settled for $1 million.
"A cleric mediated to get the amount of the ransom lowered," Roz said.
In Rome, an editorial in a newspaper funded by Berlusconi's family took the rare step of taking the government to task. Under the headline "Let's Not Celebrate," the editorial in Il Foglio said that paying ransom would "fuel the arms trade and recruitment for the war against peace and democracy in that part of the world."
Meanwhile, the leftist opposition newspaper La Repubblica, a frequent critic of Berlusconi, praised the government for paying. "There's nothing to be ashamed of," a front-page commentary said.
Berlusconi has been cagey. "Controversy about the ransom? I don't think there can be any," he told reporters in Rome.
On Wednesday, Pari and Torretta made appearances in front of their homes and at the plaza in front of Rome's city hall, where there was a brief concert.
The women said they had been moved only once during their captivity, a day after the abduction, and were kept blindfolded for a few days. Torretta acknowledged she was afraid but said the pair was "always treated with respect and dignity." Their captors, who had accused them first of being spies and then proselytizing for the Roman Catholic Church, gave them candies and copies of the Koran before releasing them to the Italian Red Cross.
Torretta said that despite the misadventure, she "would do it all over again."
Reports of violence in Iraq were relatively scarce Wednesday. On Baghdad's restive Haifa Street, Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. troops arrested a suspected terrorist, news services reported. The fugitive, Kadhim Dafan, is believed to be responsible for numerous attacks in the area, Col. Mohammed Abdullah said. Five other suspected insurgents were also taken into custody as U.S., and Iraqi forces clashed with rebels on the street.
Near Riyadh, northwest of the capital, four U.S. soldiers were wounded when a homemade bomb exploded, news services reported. The four were said to be in stable condition.
[The U.S. military said in a statement that troops early Thursday had attacked a suspected safe house in Fallujah used by followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant believed to be responsible for numerous attacks in Iraq, according to the Associated Press.
[Hospital officials said at least four Iraqis -- including two women and one child -- were killed in the attack, the AP said. Witnesses said two houses were flattened and four others damaged in the strike.]
Correspondent Glenn Frankel in London contributed to this report.