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Italians rejoice as hostages freed

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari were released to the Red Cross.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
Silvio Berlusconi

ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italians have erupted with joy after two female Italian aid workers kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago were released.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who worked for a humanitarian group called Bridge to Baghdad, were handed over to the Red Cross in Iraq on Tuesday.

He announced the release of the women, and two Iraqi men seized with them from their Baghdad office by insurgents on September 7, to a delighted parliament on Tuesday.

"Finally, a moment of joy," the prime minister said in a statement on the Italian government's Web site. Italian authorities said the women were expected to return to Italy Tuesday night.

The Arabic-language television channel Al-Jazeera aired footage of the women after they were released. It showed them wearing black veils, which they later lifted, smiling and chatting.

Italian intelligence officials would not say whether a ransom had been paid to gain the release of the women, but did say there had been intensive negotiations through mediators.

Berlusconi said there were at least 16 different negotiating sessions, some of which took place in Kuwait and in other countries in the region.

The news was greeted with universal joy in Italy. "The pope heard with great joy the news that the two Italian volunteers have been freed," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement.

"The pope thanked God for this gesture of humanity."

Ordinary Italians also expressed their relief.

"I think it is one of the best types of news that one can have," Sandro Brio, walking through central Rome, told Reuters.

"I'm really happy and I hope that now everything is done to stop this happening again."

The happy outcome of the women's ordeal came as a surprise after an Islamic Web site that had proven to be unreliable in the past posted a message last week claiming that the women had been killed.

One day later, another group claimed to have killed the women in a message that was posted on multiple Islamic Web sites that have been used by Iraqi terrorists in the past.

The group -- calling itself the Al-Zawahiri Supporters Group, named after Osama bin Laden's No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- claimed the women worked for Italian intelligence and were killed because Italy refused to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Rome sent about 2,700 troops to Iraq last year despite huge opposition at home, and said it would not bow to demands by militants to withdraw the force.

CNN's Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci said the release of the two women was unlikely to ease growing pressure on Berlusconi over his decision to back the U.S.-led war in Iraq. "It could reinforce the doubts of many Italians over the war," he said.

The humanitarian group that the two women worked for began operating in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 with the goal of lifting the U.N. embargo against Iraq.

Torretta had been in Iraq for at least a year and Pari arrived just a few months ago. Both worked on a UNICEF-linked project to help rebuild schools.

Since April, militant groups in Iraq have seized more than 100 foreign hostages. Most have been released, but about 30 have been killed.

At least seven Italians have been kidnapped in recent months in Iraq and two of them subsequently killed, including journalist Enzo Baldoni.

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