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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Italy celebrates hostages' return
Simona Pari, left, and Simona Torretta smile as they arrive at Rome's Ciampino military airport
The women said they were treated "with respect".
Two female Italian aid workers freed after being held hostage in Iraq have received a rapturous welcome in Rome.

The women, smiling broadly, said they had been treated well during their three weeks of captivity.

The Italian government has sidestepped media reports that a $1m ransom was paid for their release.

There are also unconfirmed reports that two French journalists and UK hostage Ken Bigley could soon be freed, although there is no official word.

Mr Bigley's family has taken hope from a message posted on an Arabic website, purported to be from the kidnappers, which said the hostage would be freed soon.

The message said Mr Bigley would be spared but warned others would be kidnapped and beheaded if foreign forces did not leave Iraq.

There were times when we feared we'd be killed
Simona Torretta, quoted by Italian media

Two Iraqis seized with the Italian women, and four Egyptians taken in a separate kidnapping were also released on Tuesday.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for the immediate release of all hostages in Iraq.

Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, who were seized in their Baghdad office on 7 September, appeared in good health as they arrived at Rome's Ciampino military airport on Tuesday night.

"There were times when we feared we'd be killed," Ms Torretta said. "But at other times we laughed together."

The women told Italian officials they had been kept blindfolded for almost all the time and had never seen their captors' faces. They were kept together and in the same place all the time.

"We have been treated with a lot of respect," Ms Torretta told Italian news agencies.

French negotiations

Looking tired but overjoyed, the two 29-year-olds stepped off the plane into the arms of waiting friends and relatives.

They were welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who described their release as a "moment of joy".

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari
Italy had been gripped by the hostages' plight
Asked by reporters how she felt, Ms Pari said simply: "Good."

Ms Torretta fell into her mother's arms, apologising for the worry caused.

"Mum, I'm sorry I made you suffer. Excuse me for all this pain," a family member quoted her as saying.

The two women had been handed over to the Red Cross earlier in the day along with two Iraqi colleagues, a man and a woman, who were abducted with them. The four were working for Italian aid agency A Bridge to Baghdad and were involved in school and water projects.

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

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

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

Separately, an Egyptian telecoms company, Orascom, said four of its six workers who were kidnapped in Iraq last week have been set free.

"Orascom is continuing its intensive efforts to free the two remaining hostages," the company said, declining to comment on whether a ransom had been paid.

Italy's 'difficult choice'

Mr Berlusconi has sidestepped reports that $1m ransom was paid for the Italian women, first aired by a Kuwaiti newspaper.

The BBC's Guto Harri in Rome says Mr Berlusconi has fuelled the rumours of a ransom by talking of "a difficult choice which had to be made".

An interior ministry official, who declined to confirm or deny the report, said: "We didn't give in to any blackmail."

Many different groups are thought to be operating in Iraq. Some are criminal gangs seeking ransoms, while others have made political demands.

UK hostage Ken Bigley has been threatened with beheading.

The hardline group holding him, the Tawhid and Jihad group, has already beheaded two Americans seized with Mr Bigley, and has been blamed for the deaths of previous hostages.

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

The BBC's Caroline Hawley in Baghdad says kidnapping for ransom remains a huge worry for Iraqis. No-one has precise figures of the numbers who have been abducted, but doctors, academics, businessmen, anyone with money, is at risk - as are their children.

Watch the Italian hostages arrive home


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