Top Stories - Reuters
Italian, Egyptian Hostages Freed in Iraq
1 hour, 13 minutes ago Top Stories - Reuters
By Luke Baker and Ed Cropley
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two female Italian hostages seized in Baghdad three weeks ago were set free on Tuesday along with kidnapped Iraqis and Egyptians in a flurry of releases, but an abducted Briton remained under threat of death.
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The two freed Italian aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, were safe and well, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said. They and two Iraqi colleagues seized with them had been freed after "difficult" negotiations, he said.
Within minutes of their release, an Egyptian telephone company said four of six of its engineers snatched last week had also been set free.
But the fate of British hostage, engineer Kenneth Bigley, who was seized 12 days ago and has been threatened with beheading, remained unclear and France issued an anguished plea for the release of two abducted French journalists.
Italians greeted the release of their two nationals with joy after a hostage ordeal that transfixed the nation.
"I gave the families the news a short while ago," Berlusconi told Italian state television. "They are well."
"At long last this affair is over," a delighted prime minister later told parliament to loud cheers.
Pari and Torretta, both aged 29, were taken at gunpoint from their central Baghdad offices on Sept. 7 in a brazen kidnapping that jolted the thousands of foreigners working in Iraq (news - web sites).
A Kuwaiti daily said earlier on Tuesday the women's captors had agreed to free the hostages for a $1-million ransom. The government in Rome declined comment.
Al Jazeera television aired footage of the women, who were due to fly to Rome on Tuesday evening, after they were released. It showed them wearing black veils, which they later lifted, smiling and chatting.
Despite the flurry of releases, which follows the freeing on Monday of an Iranian diplomat kidnapped nearly two months ago, there has been no word on the fate of Bigley, 62, abducted by gunmen with two American colleagues from their Baghdad home.
The Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) group of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, America's number one enemy in Iraq, beheaded the two Americans after demands for female prisoners to be released from jail in Iraq were not met.
Video footage of their murders was posted on the Internet.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin urged the Islamic Army in Iraq, a militant group which snatched French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot on Aug. 20, to heed the example of the other captors.
"As I hear of the release of the Italian hostages ... I ask the kidnappers of our countrymen in Iraq to hear the voice of France, the voice of peace, of the sovereignty of people, of respect of religion and of the convictions of everyone," Raffarin said.
There had been little word on the fate of the Italians since their abduction. They were at least the sixth and seventh Italians to be kidnapped in Iraq. Four security guards were taken in April.
One of those was killed after Rome refused to give in to demands to withdraw its troops. The others were later freed.
Last month, Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was killed after Rome again refused to pull out troops from Iraq.
Outside Baghdad, U.S. warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas, targeting fighters loyal to Zarqawi, while Jordan's king said Iraq was too dangerous for elections to be held in January.
King Abdullah, one of Washington's staunchest Middle East allies, said he did not see how national polls could go ahead amid such violence. His comments came after Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) admitted the insurgency was worsening.
"It seems impossible to me to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today," the king told French daily Le Figaro before meeting President Jacques Chirac in Paris.
"If the elections take place in the current disorder, the best-organized faction will be that of the extremists and the result will reflect that advantage."
In Falluja, the military said it had hit a house used by Zarqawi's followers, but did not say how many were killed.
In Sadr City, a poor Shi'ite Muslim district of northeastern Baghdad, residents said aircraft and tanks bombarded homes in some neighborhoods. In a statement, U.S. forces said they had conducted "precision strikes" on various targets.