Italy debates the cost of freeing hostages

Some fear consequences of alleged ransom payment.

Euphoria still lingers in the air after the triumphant homecoming of two Italian aid workers held hostage in Iraq. But concern intensified Wednesday that by saving the "two Simonas," Italy may have inspired a whole new phase of kidnapping in Iraq, sending a message to criminal gangs that western hostages are worth millions of dollars.

Amid reports that at least $1 million was paid for the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta after 21 days of agonizing negotiations with their captors, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said only that the government made "a very difficult choice."

But Gustavo Selva, chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee, confirmed that the two women were saved by cash. "The lives of the girls was the most important thing," Mr. Selva said in an interview with France's RTL radio.

"In principle, we shouldn't give in to blackmail but this time we had to, although it's a dangerous path to take because, obviously, it could encourage others to take hostages, either for political reasons or for criminal reasons," he said.

Italy had dismissed paying to release the women during the 21-day kidnapping and refused to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has sharply denied that any ransom was paid. But reports of a ransom first emerged from a credible Kuwait newspaper, Al-Rai Al-Amm.

Italy's media grappled with the dangerous implications of paying a ransom.

"[The Italian aid workers] did honest humanitarian work and ended up being unwitting collection plates," the conservative newspaper Il Foglio said in a comment headlined, "Let's Not Celebrate."

"That is called ransom and it will fuel the arms trade and recruitment for the war against peace and democracy in that part of the world," Il Foglio said.

But the center-left daily La Repubblica said a "ransom was paid and that is nothing to be ashamed of" in a front page report.

Wednesday, both aid workers emerged smiling outside their homes to thank those who had negotiated their release. They said they had been continually blindfolded and did not know where they had been held or by whom.

Suspicion grew that the women, unlike many of the other 130 hostages being held in Iraq, had been captured purely for cash since their captors did not make them broadcast pleas to their government to save their lives.

The Arabic-speaking women said Wednesday they had been treated with utmost respect and rarely feared for their lives. Their kidnappers gave them sweets, cakes, and several English language copies of the Koran by their captors. Colleagues said they even appeared to have put on weight.

Ms. Torretta said she believed her captors were a religious, nonpolitical group, probably Sunni muslims.

Most Italians continued to express relief after a night in which flowers were thrown, car horns honked, and peace flags were flown around the country.

"So we paid," said a business woman in Rome. "If we hadn't ... the girls would have come in pieces inside a box."

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Torretta's last name.]

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