Berlusconi: At last, there is some good news in Iraq

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The Independent Online

They became known all over Italy as "the two Simonas". And last night they touched down on Italian soil shortly after 11 pm, ending a three-week nightmare which few believed could finish well. They received a tumultuous welcome from a nation which has thought about little else this month.

They became known all over Italy as "the two Simonas". And last night they touched down on Italian soil shortly after 11 pm, ending a three-week nightmare which few believed could finish well. They received a tumultuous welcome from a nation which has thought about little else this month.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, walked across the tarmac at Rome's Ciampino airport wearing long white dresses with their long hair loose, holding hands and beaming and looking more like heroines in a pre-Raphaelite painting than traumatised kidnap victims. They had been kept separately throughout their ordeal, but said they had been treated well.

Within minutes of the Italians' release, an Egyptian telephone company said four of six of its engineers snatched last week had also been set free.

Daniela Torretta, Simona's aunt, said she thought her niece had put on weight. Ms Torretta's first words to her mother were: "Mum, I'm sorry I've caused you so much pain." The women were said to have been freed thanks to payment of a $1m (£550,000) ransom, a claim the government has not denied, though it has given no details of the negotiations.

Their release was a triumph for the diplomacy of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who milked the achievement for all it was worth. "At last some good news," he announced when the news broke yesterday afternoon that they were coming home. "It is a moment of great joy. After many days, many nights, many leads followed and 16 separate negotiations ... finally the affair is concluded."

The two aid workers were kidnapped three weeks ago in their home-cum-office in central Baghdad with an Iraqi engineer who worked for their organisation, Bridge to Baghdad, and an Iraqi woman working for another Italian non-government group, Intersos, based in the same building.

All four were released yesterday, deposited with hoods covering their heads in three separate Baghdad locations. They were collected by the Red Cross, and within hours the two Italians were on their way home. Al-Jazeera television, which was the first to announce the release, aired footage of the two Italians, wearing black veils, which they lifted as they smiled and chatted.

Italian newspapers had reported rumours that the hostages might be released by Friday, and a Kuwaiti newspaper yesterday claimed that they would be freed imminently, on payment of a ransom of $1m. Mr Berlusconi thanked King Abdullah of Jordan, in Italy on a state visit, for his help, without supplying details.

Italians cared little as to whether a ransom had been paid. "It's like being reborn. Out of the darkness and into the light," said Annamaria Torretta, Ms Torretta's mother.

Romano Prodi, the former EC president and former Italian prime minister, said: "Words can hardly express my joy and satisfaction now that the two Simonas are free. This is the event we have been waiting for and hoping for so anxiously."

Dr Sabah Khadim, the spokesman for the interior ministry in Baghdad, said last night of the kidnappers: "These people are not stupid. They see Italy is a member of the coalition and they know the war was unpopular in Italy. They think that kidnapping will attract a lot of publicity which means they can ask for more money." Dr Khadim said that he had spoken to one kidnapper captured by the Iraqi security services who admitted that generating publicity in the kidnap victim's home country was one way of increasing the ransom.

The capture of the two women on 7 September came only days after an acquaintance of theirs, an Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, was killed by his kidnappers. The Simonas' plight provoked a rare show of unity among Italy's bitterly divided politicians, who appealed jointly for their release.

* Palestinian gunmen freed an Israeli Arab CNN producer unharmed yesterday, a day after kidnapping him in Gaza. Riad Ali said the men told him they were from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

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