Italians shrug off claims that $1m was handed over to free women aid workers

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The Independent Online

Beaming smiles at the millions who prayed for their freedom, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari returned to a relieved Rome last night. And joyous Italians shrugged off claims that a $1m (£550,000) ransom was paid to liberate them.

Beaming smiles at the millions who prayed for their freedom, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari returned to a relieved Rome last night. And joyous Italians shrugged off claims that a $1m (£550,000) ransom was paid to liberate them.

The two women received a rapturous reception and told of their ordeal. "There were times when we feared we'd be killed," Ms Torretta said. "But at other times we laughed together." But a senior politician claimed the country's government had paid a ransom for the release of the two aid workers. Gustavo Selva, a member of the post-Fascist National Alliance and chairman of the Italian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that although payment of a ransom had been officially denied, "I believe in actuality it was paid," and that the sum of $1m first mentioned by a Kuwaiti daily on Tuesday was "probably exact".

And a snap poll found that 46 per cent of Italians believed a ransom had been paid. The attitude of most Italians, however, was probably voiced by Antonio di Pietro, a star prosecutor during the 1990s Tangentopoli ("Bribesville") scandal. "Who cares?" he said.

As the women, now national heroes, began recovering from their ordeal, details of what they had been through began to emerge. They told police the attitude of their captors had initially been "tough", as they believed the Italians to be spies, and at times they feared for their lives. "Our captors were convinced that we were in Baghdad not to help civilians but to gather information," one said.

They were held in separate rooms, and spent "several" days of their captivity blindfolded. At one point they were moved to a new holding point, but they were unable to say whether or not they had left Baghdad. But gradually their conditions improved as their abductors began to accept that they were what they claimed to be. When they left them, heavily veiled, to be collected at the side of a Baghdad road on Tuesday evening, they apologised for kidnapping them and gave them a box of biscuits and sweets for the journey.

They also gave them books on Islam, from examination of which investigators conclude that they were Sunnis. The two Simonas have repeatedly said they were treated with respect - one of their captors was chastised for accidentally touching their feet - and both said they wanted to return to Iraq and the work of Bridge to Baghdad, the Italian aid organisation from whose office they were seized. Simona Torretta, who first went to work in Iraq 10 years ago, said: "I really miss the children, the women and all the Iraqi people we know were thinking of us all through this period."

"I hope to return to Iraq shortly," said Simona Pari. "It's a country I really love." Given the sensitivity towards maltreatment of women in Islamic countries, and the nature of the work of Bridge to Baghdad in rehabilitating Iraqi schools and hospitals, the abduction of the Simonas has struck many observers as anomalous. They were the first female Western civilians to be kidnapped in Iraq, and two demonstrations were staged in central Baghdad by Iraqi beneficiaries of their work, to demand their release.

Government officials, meanwhile, were adamant that no ransom was payed. "Absolutely no ransom," insisted the Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini. And Maurizio Scelli, commissoner of the Italian Red Cross, who said he conducted eight hours of negotiations to secure the release, reacted angrily to the suggestion. "I don't want to hear talk of a ransom," he snapped at reporters. "Such talk ... is an attempt on the lives of 25 people [Red Cross workers in Iraq] who are curing 300 people every day."

Mr Scelli said he had been taken blindfolded back and forward across Baghdad to the site of the negotiations, which were so tortuous that at one point he feared he had fallen into a trap.

Yesterday one Italian newspaper, Il Riformista, repeated the claim it first made last week that the intended targets of the kidnapping were not the women but two Italian men, one an aid worker and one a photographer and reporter, who had been guests in the Simonas' apartment until a couple of days before.

The newspaper also suggested that "at least a part" of the alleged $1m ransom may have been paid to the kidnappers from funds provided by the authorities in Kuwait, from which Italy imports a lot of oil, "which would be promptly reimbursed [by Italy] on the occasion of the next commercial transaction."