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Italians freed, Frenchmen to be released

U.S. hits targets in Falluja, Sadr City


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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Two Italian women kidnapped in Iraq three weeks ago have been released and two French journalists are set to be freed in 48 hours, according to officials.

The women, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were greeted on their arrival in Rome late Tuesday by an enthusiastic crowd of family and friends.

They were working for a humanitarian group called Bridge to Baghdad when their office was raided by insurgents September 7 and they were taken hostage, police said.

Last week, an Islamist Web site that has been unreliable in the past posted a message claiming that the women had been killed.

A day later, another group claimed to have killed the women in a message posted on multiple Islamist Web sites used by Iraqi terrorists in the past.

The group -- which called itself the Al-Zawahiri Supporters Group, named after Osama bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri -- claimed the women worked for Italian intelligence and were killed because Italy refused to withdraw its 2,700 troops from 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. (Full story)

"Finally, a moment of joy," Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said.

"This has been a terrible story, an anxious time for all the country -- all fathers, mothers of Italian daughters -- but it has concluded in a totally positive way. The two girls are well, and tonight will be able to embrace their loved ones."

The women were released with two of their Iraqi colleagues, but details of the women's release remained sketchy.

Italian authorities disputed reports that a ransom was paid for their release, and Italian intelligence officials said there had been intensive negotiations through mediators.

In Baghdad, negotiator Philippe Berthe spoke with Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language television network based in Dubai, about the captive French journalists.

"We did see the hostages and met with their abductors," Berthe said. "We were able to secure a promise for the release of Christian [Chesnot] and Georges [Malbrunot] ... and we got the promise from the abductors on videotape."

Berthe said there would be no ransom.

Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France International, and Malbrunot, of Le Figaro newspaper, were reported missing August 21 after leaving for Najaf from Baghdad.

Their captors -- who called themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq -- demanded that the French government repeal a ban on the wearing of headscarves by Islamic girls in public schools.

The law, which also covers such religious items as Jewish yarmulkes and large Christian crosses, took effect at the start of the school year.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian telecommunications company said four of its six employees taken hostage in Iraq last week were released unharmed Tuesday. Orascom Telecom Holding said two of its engineers remained in captivity.

British engineer Kenneth Bigley is still being held under a death threat. Bigley and two American engineers, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were taken by masked abductors September 16 from the home they shared in Baghdad. The Americans were later beheaded.

Airstrikes in Falluja, Sadr City

Elsewhere, U.S. warplanes attacked insurgent strongholds in Falluja and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City overnight, the U.S. military said Tuesday.

On the outskirts of the southeastern city of Basra, suspected insurgents killed two British soldiers in an ambush on a convoy Tuesday, the British military said.

The deaths brought the number of British soldiers killed in the Iraq war to 68, according to the British military. (Full story)

The strike in Falluja was the latest in a campaign to root out the insurgent network thought to be linked to Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Falluja police said at least three people were killed and at least nine others were wounded in airstrikes that began late Monday.

According to a U.S. military news release, "several credible intelligence sources" said insurgents were in the area of the strike and that only al-Zarqawi "operatives and associates" were at the site when the strike occurred.

"The same sources reported that the terrorists at this site were planning attacks using foreign suicide bombers in vehicles rigged with explosives against Iraqi citizens and multinational forces," the news release said.

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told Al-Arabiya the situation in Falluja would not go on endlessly.

"We were patient long enough in Falluja and the situation will have a military or political end soon," just as the situation in Najaf was settled earlier, Allawi said, referring to the battles in the Shiite city in August between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Mehdi militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

In Sadr City, a stronghold of pro al-Sadr resistance, residents reported U.S. airstrikes after 11 p.m. local time Monday, and fighters there were said to be firing on the aircraft. Battles occurred till past dawn, residents said.

Explosions could be heard from several kilometers away in central Baghdad.

King Abdullah's warning

Iraq's interim president has said that a short delay in holding elections in the country would be more prudent than staging less-than-perfect polls, noting that "the idea of having partial elections is very appalling."

Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar said the target date of January is "very important" and noted that a "sharp surge" in the insurgency is trying to affect "the elections in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world."

However, Jordan's King Abdullah told Le Figaro that only extremists would gain if elections go ahead as planned in January.

"It appears to me impossible to organize indisputable elections in the chaos currently reigning in Iraq," the king was quoted as saying.

The king also expressed concern that partial elections that excluded Falluja and other cities could isolate Sunni Muslims, saying that could create deeper divisions in the country.

Both U.S. and Iraqi leaders have said elections will take place, but last week U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the possibility that elections could be excluded from dangerous parts of the country.

Other developments

  • The head of U.S. Central Command gave an upbeat assessment of the situation Tuesday. Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said progress on the ground belies the negative images of the war effort. He also said the new Iraqi military structure can accommodate some people who served during the Saddam Hussein era. (Full story)
  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to apologize Tuesday for the Iraq war but admitted that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction "turned out to be wrong." His defiant message to critics in his own Labor Party who had urged him to say sorry for the war was made in a keynote speech to its annual conference in Brighton, England. (Full story)
  • CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq, Basim Mouhy, Mohammed Adnan, Auday Sadik, Arwa Damon and Faris Qasira contributed to this report.


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