Fellow former hostage Sorin Miscoci - beaming - clutched a bunch of red carnations, and Ovidiu Ohanesian waved wildly to the crowd of friends and journalists waiting on the other side of the runway.

The three Romanian journalists arrived by military plane Monday, a day after being freed by their captors in Iraq.

Their 55-day ordeal had an extra element of drama when a tyre on the C130 Hercules plane exploded as the plane touched down at Otopeni military airport. No one was hurt.

President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu were among those awaiting their return.

A guide kidnapped with them on 28 March in Baghdad, Iraqi-American Mohammed Monaf, remained in Iraq in US custody, the US Embassy in Bucharest said.

Tears of joy

Ion, a reporter for Prima TV, hugged her sister and parents, shrieked with delight and then grabbed Basescu's hand, making a "V" for victory sign.

They were joined by a smiling - and visibly slimmer - Miscoci, a cameraman for Prima TV.

"They haven't slept for a long time, they have red eyes, but they're OK. I feel like today I was born again"

Elena,
Sorin Miscoci's mother

"He told us to stay calm, that they're OK, they are strong," said Miscoci's mother, Elena. "They haven't slept for a long time, they have red eyes, but they're OK. I feel like today I was born again."

Ohanesian, a reporter for the daily newspaper Romania Libera, also waved to the crowd, many of whom were teary-eyed.

His mother, Maria, said she was concerned about his health.
However, sister Anne Marie said: "They are safe, and that's all that matters."

The three have been ordered to stay in medical quarantine and not talk to the media for several days.

Romanian troops

All four were freed on Sunday. Basescu said Romanian authorities refused kidnappers' demands that the country's 800 troops be pulled out of Iraq. He said Bucharest would not negotiate its foreign policy or pay a ransom.

Basescu thanked Romania's Arab community, Romanian intelligence services and Iraqi investigators for helping to secure the hostages' freedom.

Romanian Muslims rallied for the
journalists' release

He said more details about their release would be available after an investigation into the kidnapping is complete.

On Sunday, a group calling itself Maadh Bin Jabal said in a videotape aired on Aljazeera that it decided to free the hostages after an appeal by Romania's Muslims and a Saudi preacher, Salman Bin Fahad al-Oda.

Monaf, who is married to a Romanian, was transferred by Romanian authorities to US custody, Basescu's office said, adding that he had asked to be sent to Romania. He remained in Iraq to be interviewed by US investigators.

"In preliminary interviews that took place on Sunday and again early this morning (Monday) in Baghdad, it was determined that he had information indicating an imminent threat to the multinational coalition forces in Iraq," the US Embassy in Bucharest said in a statement.

Iraq hostages

An earlier video aired on Aljazeera had shown the journalists in handcuffs with pistols pointed at their heads. Ion - wearing the yellow headscarf - could be seen talking to the camera and clutching her hands as if pleading.

In recent weeks, Romanian authorities had said they were in contact with the kidnappers and called on them not to kill the hostages.

The journalists were shown
pleading for their lives

Monaf's wife, Georget, said she hoped he would return to Romania soon. "I was waiting for him. ... He was taken [into custody] by the Americans. This is the procedure. Let's hope we see him soon," she said in an interview with television news channel N 24.

French President Jacques Chirac, European Union Parliament President Josep Borrell and the US Embassy in Bucharest also welcomed the release of the hostages.

The French leader telephoned Basescu on Monday to express his joy over the journalists' release. Chirac said the release raises hopes for other hostages still held there, including French reporter Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi guide, Hussein Hanoun.

Romania's Islamic and Cultural League sent a delegation of five leaders to Baghdad on Saturday to help free the hostages.

The group thanked Islamic groups in Iraq and authorities from Romania and Iraq for their efforts to free the hostages.