An Italian aid worker who was kidnapped in the capital more than three weeks ago was freed Thursday evening, Afghan officials said.
Clementina Cantoni, 32, was reported to be in good health despite her ordeal and spoke by phone to her mother and other family members in Italy shortly after her release. She did not appear in public or release an immediate statement.
"She is fine. She is good," said Lutfullah Mashal, the Interior Ministry spokesman.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, the interior minister, said at a hastily called news conference that, in keeping with government policy, "no ransom was paid" and no "other concessions were given" to win Cantoni's freedom.
Instead, he said, the kidnapper, whom Afghan officials have portrayed as a criminal gang member rather than an ideological militant, was persuaded to hand over Cantoni unharmed. Officials said she was freed and turned over to authorities in Logar province, a farming district just south of Kabul.
The minister said the kidnapper was swayed by the "wave of support" Cantoni received from Afghan tribal and religious leaders, civil society groups, the news media and government officials, including President Hamid Karzai, who called her "a daughter of Afghanistan."
Cantoni, an employee of the aid organization CARE International, had been running a program that distributes food to Afghan widows. On several occasions since her abduction, hundreds of veiled women served by the program held emotional demonstrations on her behalf.
The two major cell phone companies operating in Afghanistan also sent out nightly text messages to customers, asking them to contact police if they had information about her whereabouts. Cantoni's mother appeared on Afghan television pleading for her daughter's safe return.
News of Cantoni's arrival at the Interior Ministry building in Kabul was met with jubilation in Italy, where Pope Benedict XVI had joined calls for her release, according to news services.
"She's free! She's free!" a family friend, Marco Formigoni, reportedly shouted. He was with Cantoni's parents in Milan when they received the news.
"It's an enormous relief," the Italian foreign minister, Gianfranco Fini, told reporters in Luxembourg, according to news services.
In Kabul, Cantoni's colleagues called friends by cell phone, one of them wiping tears of relief from his eyes as he spread the word.
At the news conference, Jalali implied that the government at some point had the option of attempting to free Cantoni by force. "But we did not do it because it might harm her, so we tried to release her peacefully," he said.
Negotiations were marked by tension and rumor.
At one point during her captivity, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry complained that Italian officials were interfering in negotiations.
At another point, a man who identified himself as Timor Shah called news organizations on Cantoni's cell phone to say he would kill her unless the government funded more Islamic schools and banned Western-style television shows.
A day later, Shah called again to say he had strangled Cantoni. But shortly afterward, he called to say she was alive. A videotape of Cantoni surrounded by masked men pointing guns at her head was sent to an Afghan television channel.
Jalali said Cantoni would likely return to Italy soon.
Cantoni was kidnapped on the evening of May 16 when several armed men stopped her car just after she dropped a colleague off at a house in a downtown Kabul neighborhood. They reportedly broke the windows of the vehicle and pulled her out.
The incident came after several unsuccessful kidnapping attempts and spread fear among the capital's roughly 3,000 international residents, who were already on edge after anti-American protests erupted across Afghanistan in early May.
In contrast to Iraq, kidnappings of foreigners are relatively rare in Afghanistan. The most recent case involving aid workers was in October, when three U.N. workers were held for almost four weeks by a Taliban splinter group.