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Italy: Country Welcomes Hostages From Iraq Amid Concern Over Possible Ransom Payment

Ever since Simona Pari and Simona Torretta were abducted in Baghdad three weeks ago, Italians from Sicily to the Alps have been in anguish over the fate of the two 29-year-old aid workers. Then, last week, their worst fears seemed to have materialized. An Islamic militant website that carries messages from radicals in Iraq announced that the women had been killed. Some Italians greeted the news with tears, but the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi urged caution over the unconfirmed report. Two days later, on 26 September, new hope emerged when a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that the women were still alive. Finally, last night, amid reports that a ransom had been paid, the women were freed and flown home to a joyous welcome.

Prague, 29 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pensioner Filippo Mari, strolling down a street in Rome, summed up the feelings of Italians across the country over the liberation of their "two Simonas": "It was a wonderful thing. We were all waiting for this to happen -- and luckily, it ended with the great news that they had been freed."

Pari and Torretta flew into Rome late last night, ending a hostage drama that had gripped the country for the last three weeks.

The two women had worked for months for an Italian aid group (A Bridge For Baghdad) dedicated to helping Iraqi children and others affected by the U.S.-led war there. The kidnappings surprised many observers, since the group the women worked for had often sought to bypass U.S. authorities to get aid to people in cities like Al-Fallujah, which has been under siege since April.

Italian television broadcast live pictures as the two women emerged from a plane at Rome's Ciampino airport. Smiling and dressed in traditional Arab robes, they stepped into the glare of television lights and walked hand in hand to the terminal, surrounded by their families.

Prime Minister Berlusconi, heavily criticized in Italy for his support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, appeared on national television to hail the women's liberation: "It was a terrible story that had our entire country in anguish, including the mothers and fathers of all Italian girls. Fortunately, it has ended in the most positive way possible."

But as Italians woke up this morning, some of their joy was tempered by concern that their government had paid up to $1 million in ransom to free the aid workers.

So far, the government is refusing to comment publicly on whether a ransom was paid to the captors, who are believed to be former Ba'athists and not Islamic fundamentalists.

But the chairman of the Italian parliament's foreign affairs committee, Giuseppe Selva, said today that media reports that Italy paid a ransom of around $1 million are probably true. "The lives of the girls was the most important thing," said Selva, a member of Berlusconi's center-right coalition.

Jean-Pierre Darnis of Rome's Institute of International Affairs told RFE/RL that, for most Italians, the issue of a ransom is probably not a big deal: "I don't think it's a problem. Italians are extremely pragmatic. For them, human life is precious. Sure, paying blackmail money [isn't nice]. In France or other countries, it would have been more of a problem. But here, they are just happy to have the girls back, even if they had to pay for it."

But the conservative newspaper "Il Folio," which supports Berlusconi, condemned any payment: "They did honest humanitarian work and ended up being unwitting collection plates," it said, adding: "That is called ransom, and it will fuel the arms trade and recruitment for the war against peace and democracy in that part of the world."

There are also media reports that Italy agreed to accept "political" conditions for the women's liberation, including bringing Iraqi children to Italian hospitals, as well as welcoming to Italy a future delegation of moderate Iraqi leaders.

Analyst Darnis said he believes those reports are true: "Between the U.S.-appointed Iraqi government, and the U.S.-led coalition, and the terrorists, there is also a series of moderate, Muslim Iraqis who don't agree with the interim government or the U.S. presence and would like to express their opinion by coming to Italy to speak."

Still, few Italians are paying attention to the ransom issue, and the media is focusing on the welfare of the women, who were freed along with two other Iraqi hostages.

Luca Marozzi, on a motor scooter in Rome, told Reuters that the news means something good has finally happened in Iraq: "It means that something good happened [in Iraq]. But we should all think about this hard, because it won't be easy to bring democracy to a country where things like this happen. We'll have to wait and see."

The two women, now national heroines, were quoted as telling Italian investigators that they were kept blindfolded throughout their ordeal and never saw their captors. But they added that they had been treated "very well" and "only sometimes feared for their lives."

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