Among them were Italian charity workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both aged 29, who had been missing for almost three weeks.

 

The two women were handed to the Italian charge d'affaires in Baghdad and swiftly flown to Rome.

 

Pari and Torretta were snatched from their Baghdad office on 7 September and had not been heard from since.

The women worked for NGO Bridge to Baghdad and were involved in an aid initiative aimed at boosting school attendance in Basra and Baghdad, including in the capital's Sadr City slums.

Desire to return

Upon landing in Italy, the pair expressed their desire to return to Iraq, saying they were treated well.

Italy's Berlusconi will likely face
growing debate about the war

Pari said she already misses Iraq and the friends she had made there during her work for the Italian-based organisation

But she gave no electoral gifts to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

She said Italy should withdraw its 3,000 strong contingent in Iraq - controversially dispatched to Iraq by Berlusconi as part of his support for the US-led war.

"We have to keep on understanding what is happening in Iraq," she said. "We have to denounce it, to seek to modify this horrible reality."

Well-treated

Asked if that meant the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country she answered: "even a withdrawal of the troops."

Torretta said they had been well-treated during their three-week ordeal, saying she too was willing to go back.

She said they had been treated "with a lot of respect" during their captivity, and showed off a box of sweets which she said her captors had given her as a farewell gift. She said they had been given books to read as well.

"It was tough, but we knew that we would be freed," she said.   

"I hope that our experience and its outcome of the kidnapping will help everyone understand and to believe that there can still be dialogue between the parties," Torretta said in a telephone interview with a television chat show host which was to be broadcast late on Wednesday.

No ransom

"We did not pay any ransom as the ransom was the work we have been doing, the work of the two girls, the volunteers and the Italian hospital in Baghdad which have helped many Iraqis"

Franco Frattini,
Italian foreign minister

Meanwhile, the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Aljazeera: "I and the Italian government want to thank the Arab and Islamic world for the great help they have offered in freeing the two hostages. Without their help the hostages would not have been released."

Frattini said "many people did their best to free the hostages. We heard calls from religious figures inside and outside Iraq to free the hostages".


"There has been cooperation from important Arab governments whom I would like to thank."


Frattini added: "We did not pay any ransom as the ransom was the work we have been doing, the work of the two girls, the volunteers and the Italian hospital in Baghdad which have helped many Iraqis."

 

Father thankful

 

The father of Simona Pari told Aljazeera.net he was thankful for the support he received. 

 

Speculation remains about the 
identity of the Italians' captors

"The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi confirmed to us the release of my daughter and the others. We were watching Aljazeera for updates," Luciano Pari said.

 

"No kidnapping party called us and we depended on the information provided by the Crisis Unit of the Italian Foreign Ministry.

 

"I would like to thank you, Aljazeera, and the whole Arab world for supporting us in those hard times," he said.

 

Pari said: "I did not speak with my daughter yet due to technical reasons, maybe I will in a few hours."

Increased speculation

 

Mystery surrounds the identity of the two Italians' captors.

 

The women were seized in broad daylight in central Baghdad very close to the heavily-guarded Green Zone.

 

Observers say the group of 20 armed men who carried out the operation wore Iraqi National Guard uniforms and said they were working for interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

 

Shaikh Abd Al-Salam al-Kubaisi, a well respected Sunni cleric who has previously brokered the release of foreign hostages, had told reporters in Baghdad the Italian aid workers had visited him and told him they were being threatened.

 

"They were scared", he said. "They told me that someone threatened them." When asked who was behind the threats, al-Kubaisi said: "We suspect some foreign intelligence."