At least 10 hostages in Iraq freed in 24 hours

Wext: Thursday, 30.September. @ 00:00:00 CEST

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29 / 09 / 2004, BAGHDAD ( AFP ) — Two female Italian aid workers kidnapped in Baghdad three weeks ago were released along with two Iraqi colleagues, making at least 10 the number of people freed in 24 hours, including employees of Egyptian telecoms giant Orascom.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi himself confirmed in Rome the release of Simona Pari and Simon Torretta, both 29, taken at gunpoint from the office of their aid organisation "A Bridge to Baghdad" on September 7.

He described it as a "moment of joy," confirming that two Iraqi aid workers kidnapped at the same time had also been released.

The Italian authorities kept the story secret until Pari and Torretta were already on their way home, traveling via Kuwait, after being turned over to the Italian Red Cross.

The two women were flown from Baghdad aboard a military aircraft to Abdullah al-Mubarak military airbase in Kuwait, then transferred to a civilian plane at the adjacent Kuwait airport for the flight home, sources there told AFP.

The aircraft bringing them from Baghdad touched down at the airbase used by the US-led coalition in Iraq at around 9:15 pm (1815 GMT), the sources said.

"I have just rung their families to tell them," Berlusconi said earlier in Rome.

Almost simultaneously, Orascom announced that three Egyptians captured last week had also been released.

"We have information on the release of three hostages. They may arrive in Baghdad tonight, but I am waiting to see them with my own eyes," a spokesman said in Baghdad.

The three were kidnapped in western Iraq, together with another Egyptian and two Iraqis employed by the same company and who were released late Monday.

Al-Arabiya television reported late Tuesday that another two Orascom employees had been freed, but this could not be confirmed.

Orascom said earlier it was continuing "intensive efforts" to secure their release.

In Rome, thousands of people cheered and applauded outside the home of one of the two Italian hostage's mother.

Al-Jazeera television aired footage of the two women, who could first be seen at an undisclosed location before lifting their veils and smiling as they were handed over.

It was never clear who detained Pari, Torretta and the two Iraqis. Their capture was claimed by two organisations, and statements posted on websites claiming their deaths were dismissed by the Italian authorities as not serious.

In an uncanny succession of events, the releases confirmed Tuesday came a day after an Iranian diplomat held by the same group detaining two French reporters was released following a 55-day ordeal.

But the life of British hostage Kenneth Bigley -- whose two US colleagues were beheaded by the group of the most wanted man in Iraq last week -- still hung in the balance.

However, a British Muslim delegation said after a 48-hour mission to Baghdad that they had received "very encouraging advises and promises that we hope, inshallah (God willing), will lead to the release" of the 62-year-old engineer.

Bigley is detained by the Tawhid wal Jihad group of top US foe Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who has a 25-million-dollar on his head.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his Labour party's annual conference in Brighton, England that he refused to apologize for the Iraq war, as he linked the future of Iraq to Britain's national security.

"I can't, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam," said Blair, who nevertheless regretted that intelligence on the deposed president's alleged weapons of mass destruction was flawed.

On the ground, the insurgent enclave of Fallujah, where many of the foreign hostages are believed to have been held, was again pounded by US aircraft overnight.

"Three people were killed and six others wounded," said Dr Rafaa Hiad at the town's main hospital.

A coalition spokesman denied the strike had caused any casualties.

In the capital, explosions rocked the Sunni Muslim Haifa Street area, while US helicopter gunships struck the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, one of Baghdad's mostly densely populated districts.

In southern Iraq, two British soldiers were killed in a rare ambush of a military convoy in this area, a defence ministry spokesman said in London.

The renewed fighting underscored concerns raised by Jordan's King Abdullah II about the possibility of holding elections in January as planned.

The king, who delayed his own parliamentary elections for two years, told the Paris daily Le Figaro: "It appears to me impossible to organize indisputable elections in the chaos currently reigning in Iraq."

His remarks followed warnings from UN Secretary General Kofi Annanand comments by US Secretary of State Colin Powell that the insurgency was growing more dangerous as the election target date nears.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the possibility last week that the polls might go ahead in most of Iraq, leaving out the regions most affected by the violence.

But critics argue that polls in which some areas are disenfranchised would not be the sort of "indisputable elections" talked about by the Jordanian king.

Addressing a UN symposium on reconstruction in Amman, Iraq's interim planning minister Mehdi Hafez also complained that an international drive to rebuild his war-shattered country has been discouraging because billions of dollars pledged have not been spent.



Source: AFP









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