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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK
Italy celebrates hostages' return
Simona Pari, left, and Simona Torretta smile as they arrive at Rome's Ciampino military airport
The two women were freed after being held for three weeks
Two female Italian aid workers freed after being held hostage in Iraq for three weeks have arrived back in Italy.

They were handed over to the Red Cross in Baghdad before flying to Rome, where they were reunited with their families.

Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who were seized in their Baghdad office on 7 September, appeared in good health.

Meanwhile, a French negotiator says he has reached a deal with kidnappers to free two French hostages in Iraq, according to Arabic television.

The envoy, Philippe Brett, told al-Arabiya TV he had seen Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were kidnapped on 21 August, and they would be released soon.

Finally a moment of joy - the two girls are well
Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi

However, the French foreign ministry said it had no knowledge of any deal to free the hostages and that Mr Brett was not part of any official efforts to secure their release.

Separately, an Egyptian telecoms company said four of its six workers who had been held hostage in Iraq have been set free.

There is, however, no news of UK hostage Ken Bigley, who has been threatened with beheading.

On Monday, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped nearly two months ago was freed.

About 30 other foreigners, including several from Arab countries, are still being held.


Arabic television station al-Jazeera broadcast footage of the two Italian women, aged 29, being released.

It showed them in an open field, wearing black veils over their faces, which they later lifted, smiling and chatting as they were met by three men.

"Shukran, shukran gesilan, ma salama [Thanks, thanks a million, good-bye]," said one of the women.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari
Italy was gripped by the hostages' plight
Two Iraqi aid workers - Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam - seized with the two women were also freed.

The aid workers arrived at a military airport in Rome at 2300 (2100 GMT) on Tuesday night.

Looking tired but overjoyed and wearing white and pink robes, they stepped off the plane into the arms of waiting friends and relatives.

They smiled for the press before going into the airport, where they were welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Asked by reporters how she felt, Ms Pari said simply: "Good."

Mr Berlusconi described the release of the two women as a "moment of joy".

Pope John Paul II expressed his "great joy" at news of the release.

Mr Berlusconi has denied rumours that $1m ransom has been paid to bring about the release, but correspondents say question marks still remain.

Family joy

The families reacted swiftly to news of the release.

"I'm so happy, overwhelmingly happy," said Ms Pari's father, Luciano, from his home in Rimini on the Adriatic coast. "This was the news I had been hoping for.

People hand out flowers under the offices of Italian aid organization Un Ponte Per (A Bridge for..) at the news of the release of the Italian hostages.
I'm so happy, overwhelmingly happy. This was the news I had been hoping for
Simona Pari's father,

"I wish to take this opportunity to thank you and to thank the entire Arab world, who proved their friendship to us and to Italy, especially at these difficult times," he told al-Jazeera.

The two women were working for the aid agency A Bridge to Baghdad and had been involved in school and water projects.

The fate of both aid workers captured the hearts of Italians this month and over the last week itself there has been a rollercoaster of emotions, says the BBC's Guto Harri in Rome.

Pictures of the two were hung on Rome's Capitol building, while tens of thousands of Italians took part in candle-lit vigils and sent messages of solidarity to their families.

The BBC's Tim Muffett
"Italians have been hoping and praying"


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