Italian hostages in Syria: Healthcare workers Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli return to Rome, amid €12,000,000 ransom rumours

Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli were kidnapped in July

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The Independent Online

The Italian foreign minister has labelled reports that the government paid a €12,000,000 ransom to release two aid workers kidnapped in Syria “baseless”, as the pair returned to Rome today.

Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, both 21, were volunteering as healthcare assistants in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, when they were kidnapped by the Nusra Front – al Qaeda’s Syrian wing - in July.

Two weeks ago, their captors released a threatening video online demanding the government intervene to bring them home.

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Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli appearing in a video posted by militants

Politicians greeted their return to Rome with applause in parliament today, but were forced to address reports by Arab media which suggested a ransom a €12,000,000 may have been handed over to militants. It remains unclear whether a ransom was paid.

Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni dismissed the reports, which he said may have been circulated by the kidnappers.

“It surprises me that this conjecture from these sources was given credibility by some without any confirmation,” he told parliament.

He added that the government is against paying ransoms, and said its approach to the situation was in line with the long-standing policy of successive administrations, and Italy had respected internationally recognised rules.

“We are against paying ransoms,” he said, but added:"When it comes to Italians taken hostage, our priority is focused on saving their lives and the physical integrity of our compatriots."

The release comes a week after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris and a day after Belgian police killed two men during a raid on an Islamist group. It is yet unclear whether the two groups were connected, after prosecutors said they had detained a man in Belgium who they suspected of supplying weapons to Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly.

Ransoms are a particularly sensitive issue, as they are one of the main sources of funding for terrorist organisations.  A report in the New York Times last year said al-Qaeda and its affiliates had made at least $125 million (£82,600,000) from kidnap ransoms since 2008 - mostly from European governments making payments through proxies.

Lucio Malan, a senior member of the centre-right Forza Italia party, demanded that the government to disclose whether a ransom was paid.

If a ransom were paid "to save two valuable lives, then thousands of others — equally valuable — would be put at risk," Malan said in a statement.

A ransom payment "would encourage terrorists, illegitimate entities like the so-called caliphate and simple criminals to take Italians hostage, wherever they may be," Malan said.

The leader of the opposition Northern League party Matteo Salvini said on Twitter: "If the government really paid a ransom of 12 million to free the two friends of the Syrians, it would be disgusting!"

European governments including Italy have long tolerated or facilitated ransom payments to secure the release of hostages although the practice has frequently been denied officially.

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