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Italian hostages freed in Iraq


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The freeing of hostages in Iraq.
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(CNN) -- Three Italians held hostage in Iraq for nearly two months and a Polish citizen have been freed as a result of a military operation, according to the U.S.-led coalition.

The operation, led by Polish and U.S. special forces, took place after an intensive intelligence investigation, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

It took place in the southern part of Baghdad Tuesday morning, and Frattini said no ransom had been paid.

Meanwhile, it emerged that two Turks and an Iraqi Turkoman driver who had been seized by gunmen in Iraq were also released Tuesday.

Flanked by an Italian and a Polish diplomat, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of U.S. military forces in Iraq, told a news conference in Baghdad the military operation took place south of Baghdad and was conducted by a "combined" team of "coalition forces."

The former hostages were in good health and in coalition control, Sanchez said. "They are in very good hands."

Sanchez identified those rescued as Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana and Salvatore Stefio of Italy and Gerzy Kos of Poland.

"All of the hostages were at the same location," he said.

Sanchez could not say what group the abductors were affiliated with. "At this point in time, there's no reported exchange of fire," said Sanchez, who could not give the precise location of the operation.

He said the release was not the result of negotiations, and he could not confirm any casualties.

Italian TV earlier reported the Italian hostages were later taken to the airport in Baghdad ahead of their journey home, according to Italian TV. The Polish citizen was taken to the Polish Embassy in Baghdad.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, heading to the G-8 summit in the United States, was informed of the release of his countrymen early Tuesday morning, Italian TV reported.

Officials on the plane applauded when informed of the news. CNN's Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci said Italian television channels made a rare break into normal programming to report the announcement.

"This was a happy ending to a story that could have been tragic," Berlusconi later said on state television.

He said the men were being flown by helicopter to Baghdad and were due to return to Italy on Wednesday.

Execution filmed

The wave of kidnappings broke out in Iraq in April along with an upswing of violence. Dozens of people from several nations were abducted, but most were later freed, usually after intercession from Iraqi Sunni clerics. About 20 foreigners are still being held hostage.

Two hostages are known to have been killed by their captors: Fabrizio Quattrocchi, a colleague of the three Italians freed Tuesday, and American Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded by kidnappers believed to include al Qaeda-linked militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Last week, the Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera showed video of the three Italians. One of the men said the captors were treating them "excellently." It marked the first time in more than a month the world has seen pictures of the hostages.

The three, all unshaven, were shown sitting around a table eating with spoons from a communal plate and talking among themselves. Another shot showed the three sitting in chairs.

After the execution of Quattrocchi shortly after the group was kidnapped April 12 a written statement from a group calling itself the Green Brigades gave Italians five days to organize demonstrations calling for Berlusconi's government to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq. Otherwise, it said, the hostages would be killed.

Thousands of Italians -- most of whom opposed their country's participation in the war that overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- later marched in Rome, but relatives of the hostages stressed the demonstration was not a call to withdraw troops.

Turks freed

Meanwhile Tuesday, Serka, a construction company that employs the two Turks and their Iraqi Turkoman driver, announced the release of the men in a statement issued in Adana, Turkey.

They had been heading back from Fallujah toward Baghdad Sunday night when they were kidnapped.

The Turks have been identified as Adnan Azizoglu and Tarkan Arikoglu. The company did not have an identity for the Turkoman.

The three had been at a U.S. base in Fallujah for business. On their way, they were stopped by suspected insurgents.

The company learned of the incident early Tuesday morning and asked Turkish authorities to find a solution. A Turkish truck driver and an Egyptian truck driver were also taken hostage in Iraq last week.


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