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2 Italian Hostages Got Gifts, Apology

Times Staff Writers

At times, they feared for their lives. They spent many days with blindfolds pressed against their eyes. Their Iraqi captors were convinced that they were spies or proselytizers of Catholicism.

And yet, in the end, their kidnappers apologized and gave them farewell gifts.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, two Italian humanitarian aid workers snatched from their office in Baghdad three weeks ago by uniformed gunmen, savored their first day of freedom Wednesday in a joyous and relieved Italy -- even as questions were raised about how their release was achieved and speculation grew that a large ransom had been paid.

Details emerged about their ordeal and what it took to spare them the fate of so many other foreigners kidnapped in Iraq. The two 29-year-olds are thought to be the only Western women to have been taken hostage amid the rash of abductions by both insurgents and criminal gangs.

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At a celebration Wednesday evening in Rome’s majestic City Hall, friends and supporters released white doves, unfurled an enormous peace banner and chanted, “Simona! Simona!”

“Let’s hope our release will help comprehension between people, the peace process and the Iraqis,” Torretta said from the white marble balcony. “When we think about the suffering of our mothers, we also think about the suffering of Iraqi mothers who live in a country hit by war.”

While Italians rejoiced over the women’s release, Britons remained on edge over the fate of Kenneth Bigley, abducted this month in Iraq with two American engineers, who were beheaded.

The Arab television channel Al Jazeera aired a chilling videotape of Bigley on Wednesday that showed him confined in a wire cage too small to stand in, begging for his life and complaining that his government and Prime Minister Tony Blair were not doing enough to save him.

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Bigley, 62, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was crouched with his hands between his knees, shackled with chains that reached around his neck.

“Tony Blair, I am begging you for my life, I am begging you for my life,” Bigley, sobbing, said in the tape. “Have some compassion, please.”

Blair, speaking to British TV on Wednesday night, said he was “sickened” by the latest images and “desperately sorry” for Bigley. Earlier, he told reporters his government was doing everything it could, but said Bigley’s captors had “made no attempt to have any contact with us.”

“If they did make contact, it would be something we would immediately respond to,” Blair said at his political party’s annual conference.

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Bigley’s captors have demanded that female prisoners in U.S.-run jails in Iraq be released. A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that the Italians’ captors made the same demand, then changed course and asked for a ransom.

The Kuwaiti paper, and later several Italian publications, reported that a ransom of as much as $1 million was paid to free the women. An Italian emissary, according to one report, paid half the amount early in the week, ascertained that the women were safe, then paid the rest.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini denied Wednesday that money changed hands, but it would be difficult to find an Italian who believed him. Gustavo Selva, head of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of the ruling party, said he believed that a ransom was paid “as a last resort.”

“I realize this is a position that may create some difficulties because it could fuel the greed of common criminals and attract the interest of terrorist movements,” he said. “But I think the lives of two people are well worth the trouble of traveling down this difficult road.”

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Some newspaper editorials said that the paying of a ransom had set a dangerous precedent.

The government of Italy, where the Mafia and leftist Red Brigades have used kidnapping as a tool, sometimes has frozen the assets of victims’ families to discourage the practice.

Paying a ransom would fly in the face of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s repeated assertions that he would not “deal with terrorists,” and it could complicate matters for other governments whose citizens are kidnapped.

In discussing the circumstances of the women’s release, Berlusconi alluded to “difficult choices” but sidestepped the specific question of whether a ransom was paid.

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In statements throughout the day to various news outlets and the public, the Simonas, as they are known here, offered details about their ordeal but did not discuss the subject of ransom.

They described a captivity that was at times terrifying but said they were ultimately treated with “respect” by their fervently religious kidnappers.

“They taught us and wanted to teach us about the principles of Islam,” Torretta told a throng of reporters outside her Rome residence. “They never touched us. They treated us with great dignity.”

Tensions and initially harsh treatment eased notably, the women said, when their captors finally understood that they were in fact what they claimed to be -- humanitarian volunteers who work primarily with children. At first, they said, the kidnappers suspected that they were spies or had gone to predominantly Muslim Iraq to spread Roman Catholicism.

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“Our captors were convinced we were in Baghdad not to help civilians but to gather information,” one of the women was quoted by the state news agency ANSA as having told an Italian judicial investigator. The two were debriefed for several hours after their arrival in Rome late Tuesday.

They also said that they were blindfolded and never saw their kidnappers’ faces, and that they were kept apart most of the time.

The Kuwaiti newspaper that first reported that the women’s release was imminent published additional details Wednesday, saying negotiations began about 10 days ago between an Italian official and a group of Iraqi Muslims and tribal chiefs. When the captors realized that their political demands were going nowhere, they asked for money, the paper said.

Italian Red Cross officials in Baghdad became involved. Maurizio Scelli, head of the Baghdad office, said he was summoned to a secret location in the city for hours of negotiations with a “mediator.”

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An Iraqi doctor also played a key role, he said, and the two found themselves face-to-face with the kidnappers. The men brandished a revolver with which they said they intended to kill the women, Scelli told the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso.

“They blindfolded us and, to make us lose our sense of direction, they took us backward and forward across Baghdad,” Scelli told L’Espresso.

He and the doctor were taken to a house where they were interrogated so fiercely that at one point Scelli thought they had fallen into a trap. The interrogators claimed that the two women were spies. Eventually, after the doctor swore on the Koran that Scelli was a man of honor, they were taken by car to one of Baghdad’s main mosques.

There, Scelli and the doctor found Torretta and Pari, covered in black veils, along with an Al Jazeera crew waiting to film the meeting.

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On Wednesday, Red Cross officials refused to discuss whether a ransom had been paid but said their organization had agreed to fly 15 wounded Iraqis to Italy for urgent medical care, apparently as part of the release deal.

Neither Torretta nor Pari expressed rancor toward Iraq, and both said they wanted to return to the country.

“I’m a bit dazed today and I can’t make plans, but I certainly won’t stop doing the work I’ve been doing up to now,” Torretta said.

“I really miss the kids, the women, all our Iraqi friends and all the Iraqi people we know were thinking of us all through this period,” Pari said.

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At the end of the three-week ordeal, the kidnappers apologized and gave their captives 10 copies of the Koran in English.

“They asked us to forgive them,” Torretta said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Iraq abductions

Nearly 30 hostages are thought to have been killed in Iraq since a wave of kidnappings began in April.

Released 118

Killed 29

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Missing 34

Escaped 3

Rescued 1

De Cristofaro reported from Rome and Wilkinson from Ankara, Turkey. Times staff writer Thomas S. Mulligan in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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