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Afghanistan: Italian Hostage Clementina Cantoni Released --> Clementina Cantoni (file photo) Afghan President Hamid Karzai today praised the work of his Interior Ministry, security forces, and tribal leaders in securing the release of a kidnapped Italian aid worker. Clementina Cantoni was released late yesterday after more than three weeks of captivity. Afghan authorities deny having paid any ransom for her release. Cantoni is due to return to Italy today.

Prague, 10 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali announced the release of CARE International employee Clementina Cantoni today.

"I am pleased to announce that this evening we were able to free Clementina Cantoni who was taken hostage about 24 days ago by a criminal gang in Kabul," Jalali said.

Cantoni, who is 32, is said to be in good health. She spent the night at the Italian Embassy in Kabul and was due to fly to Italy today.

Before being kidnapped, she had been managing a project that helps some 10,000 Afghan widows and their children. She had been living in Afghanistan since 2002.
"More or less the situation here is that the NGOs keep their staff inside their compounds."

Cantoni was snatched from her car on 16 May in central Kabul. Little is known about the identity of her kidnappers who, according to Afghan authorities, are members of a criminal gang.

President Karzai said in a statement that he was "extremely pleased by Cantoni’s release. He said he "once again condemns the act of hostage taking, which is criminal and unacceptable under any circumstances."

Some sources, including Pajhwok News Agency in Afghanistan, have reported that the leader of the kidnappers had demanded the release of his mother from jail. She is reported to be charged with playing a role in an unrelated kidnapping.
But Afghan Interior Minister Jalali said yesterday that no concessions were made to the hostage takers.

"We are very grateful to the tribal leaders, community leaders who helped us all along in their work in negotiating on behalf of us at some points, directly and indirectly. So therefore the weight of all this effort finally persuaded the kidnappers to free her," Jalali said.

He said Cantoni was freed as a result of combined efforts by his ministry and also by Afghan widows. Afghan widows had on several occasions held protests and called for the release of Cantoni.

Her release was met with great joy and relief in Italy where several rallies had been also held for her freedom. The pope, Italian politicians, and an Italian actor who is known in Afghanistan, also called for her liberation.

Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told reporters in Luxembourg yesterday that he was relieved over Cantoni’s release and that her abduction was by criminals.

"The nature of the kidnapping wasn't political or terrorist based. It was just exclusively criminal," Fini said.

The kidnapping of Cantoni has raised concern over the safety of aid workers in Afghanistan.

Maurizio Balbi, an employee for Aina, an NGO that supports free media in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL a few days after Cantoni’s abduction that it had caused widespread alarm within Kabul’s NGO community.

"More or less the situation here is that the NGOs keep their staff inside their compounds. I am worried but not so worried, we knew that they were going to do something for some time. We don't know if they are criminals or what they call terrorists. I can say that most of the NGOs are quite worried about the situation," Balbi said.

In October, three foreign UN workers were kidnapped and held for a month before being released. In that case, too, Afghan authorities said no deal was made with the kidnappers.