Thu, Sep 30, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Italian and Iraqi aid workers freed

AP , ROME AND BAGHDAD

One of the two freed Italian aid workers said yesterday that their abductors in Iraq taught them about Islam and reassured them they wouldn't die. While the women rested with their families after a joyous reunion, questions were raised about whether a US$1 million ransom had been paid to secure their freedom.

Simona Torretta spoke briefly to a mob of reporters outside the front door of the apartment building where her family lives on the outskirts of Rome before dawn, a few hours after being questioned by Italian investigators.

Torretta and Simona Pari, who was also freed in Baghdad on Tuesday after three weeks in captivity, had flown to Rome late Tuesday night. Two Iraqis abducted with them were also freed.

Asked if she feared she would die during her captivity, Torretta first said "Yes." Then she added that their abductors "reassured us. They understood the work we did" for a volunteer group in Iraq.

She described her kidnappers as "religious. They taught us and wanted to teach us about the principles of Islam," Torretta said. "They never touched us. They treated us with great dignity."

Pari, who like Torretta is 29, returned to her family's home in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast. The former hostages work for the aid group "Un Ponte per ..." (A bridge to ...), which carries out water projects and helps Iraq children.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who had visited several Middle East capitals as part of efforts to secure the women's release, flatly denied on Italian state radio that ransom had been paid.

But Gustavo Selva, the head of an Italian parliamentary foreign affairs commission, has told reporters that he personally believed the ransom was paid even if the government denies it, said Selva's spokesman, Eugenio Marcucci.

Selva is a member of National Alliance, a partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

La Stampa, a moderate Turin daily, quoted Berlusconi as brushing off the questions over ransom, saying "About this business, we won't say anything. Even more, we won't talk about it any more."

On a local government building in Rome, the words "Freedom, welcome back" were added to a banner with photos of the two women.

Meanwhile, US and Iraqi forces raided suspected insurgent hideouts in the heart of the capital yesterday, sparking clashes along a main Baghdad thoroughfare as violence continued unabated.

Iraqi security forces backed by US troops arrested a suspected terrorist operating on Baghdad's bloodied Haifa Street, cornering him yesterday in a closet as he tried to conceal his face with his wife's underwear, an Iraqi National Guard commander said.

Outside of Baghdad, at least 13 persons were killed in separate drive-by shootings, ambushes and grenade attacks late Tuesday and yesterday.

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