- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

BAGHDAD — Kidnappers released two Italian aid workers and five other hostages yesterday, raising hopes for at least 18 foreigners still in captivity. But insurgents showed no sign of easing their blood-soaked campaign against the U.S. presence in Iraq, staging a show of defiance in Samarra and striking twice with deadly force in Basra.

It was not clear what prompted the two groups of kidnappers to release the hostages, and whether any ransom had been paid. It was the second day in a row that foreigners were freed.

The two Italians, both women, were wearing full black veils that revealed only their eyes as they were received by the Italian Red Cross in a Baghdad neighborhood, according to video broadcast by the Arab television station Al Jazeera.

Looking dazed but smiling, Simona Torretta lifted her veil and said, “Thank you,” in Arabic. Simona Pari hesitated before also lifting her veil.

In Rome, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went before Parliament to announce the release of the two aid workers and two Iraqis kidnapped in Baghdad three weeks ago.

“Finally, a moment of joy,” Mr. Berlusconi said, as the assembly broke into applause. “The two girls are well and will be able to return to their loved ones tonight.”

Miss Pari and Miss Torretta were abducted Sept. 7 in a bold raid on the Baghdad office of their aid agency Un Ponte Per … (“A Bridge To …”). Two Iraqis, Raad Ali Aziz and Mahnaz Bassam, also were seized.

Two groups took responsibility for the abductions, demanding the withdrawal of Italian troops from the country or the release of Iraqi female prisoners. The groups later put out Web statements that the two Italians had been killed, but the Italian government said the statements were not credible.

News of the release came after a Muslim leader from Italy met with an influential Muslim association in Baghdad yesterday to press for their freedom. The two women, both 29, had been working on school and water projects.

Later yesterday, the two were flown to a military airport in Rome, where they were greeted by Mr. Berlusconi. The women, in long, white dresses, emerged smiling and held hands as they walked on the tarmac, their relatives by their side.

Asked by reporters how she felt, Miss Pari said only, “Good.”

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai Al-Aam reported yesterday that the women could be released by Friday in return for a $1 million ransom. But Al Arabiya television, citing unidentified sources involved in the negotiations, said no ransom was paid.

Pope John Paul II, who recently urged that all hostages held in Iraq be freed, expressed “great joy” over the Italians’ release, the Vatican said.

Four Egyptian telecommunications workers abducted last week also have been freed, their company, Orascom, announced in Cairo. One was released Monday and the others yesterday, the company said.

The Egyptian charge d’affaires in Baghdad, Farouq Mabrouk, said the kidnappings were “motivated by financial reasons.” But an Orascom spokesman declined to comment on whether a ransom had been paid.

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq — some by anti-U.S. insurgents and others by criminals seeking ransom. At least 26 have been killed, including two Americans whose beheadings were recorded and the footage posted on the Internet last week.

A Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the back-to-back releases this week raised hopes for those still in captivity, including Kenneth Bigley, the British man captured with the Americans from their Baghdad house on Sept. 16. But with so many groups involved in the kidnappings, the diplomat cautioned against drawing any conclusion.

“I’d like to think it was a trend, but we really can’t say that right now,” she said.

Dozens of masked gunmen carrying flags of Iraq’s most feared terror group yesterday drove down the main street of Samarra in a show of strength for the first time since U.S. troops briefly entered the central city this month under a deal brokered with tribal leaders.

The militants, loyal to terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi, stopped some cars and asked the occupants to hand over music tapes in exchange for ones with recitations from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

The city north of Baghdad has been under insurgent control and a virtual “no-go” area for U.S. troops since May 30.

Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group has taken responsibility for a series of bombings and kidnappings, including those of Mr. Bigley and the two slain Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.

On a day of attacks nationwide, insurgents ambushed a British military convoy near the comparatively peaceful southern city of Basra, killing two soldiers, the Ministry of Defense in London said.

The soldiers’ names were withheld pending family notification.

In Basra, gunmen killed five members of Iraq’s intelligence agency as they were returning a civilian rescued from kidnappers to his family, said intelligence officer Maj. Jasim al-Darraji.

In Baghdad, U.S. troops and insurgents clashed along central Haifa Street, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said, and explosions rocked the capital. There was no word on casualties.

The fighting came after a roadside bomb exploded on another main Baghdad roadway early yesterday, wounding three civilians. The attack on Karrada Street also damaged vehicles and shattered windows, witnesses said.

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