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Afghan hostage returns to Italy


KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Italian aid worker freed after three weeks as a hostage in Afghanistan has arrived home.

An Italian jet carrying Clementina Cantoni, 32, landed in Rome's Ciampino Airport shortly after 5:30pm local time (1630 GMT) from Kabul.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi boarded the plane to meet her. After a brief wait, Cantoni emerged looking pale but generally healthy.

"Thank-you everyone!" she said to reporters assembled on the tarmac.

"Everything's OK. But I think about other people who are still held hostage," she was quoted as saying.

She was accompanied on the flight by her father and brother, a senior Ministry of Interior official told The Associated Press.

Cantoni was abducted May 16 when her unmarked car was stopped as she was driving home in Kabul.

CNN's Alessio Vinci said Cantoni would be interviewed by Italian magistrates before she returned to her home town Milan.

He said questions still remained about the circumstances of the aid worker's release.

Some reports from Afghanistan suggested a ransom was paid, while Italian newpapers reported that secret service agents had convinced the government in Kabul to release four prisoners in exchange for Cantoni.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica quoted Cantoni as saying of her kidnappers: "They treated me well."

She said she was "watched by a group of women" during her ordeal.

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said soon after Cantoni's release that the support of the Afghan people and its government, along with tribal leaders who negotiated with the kidnappers, eventually secured her freedom.

"We tried during these 24 days to persuade the abductors to release her," Jalai said.

"We followed the policy of the government of Afghanistan," he said. "We did not give any concession to kidnappers. No ransom was paid, and no other concessions were given."

Jalali also said that Cantoni spoke to her mother after her release and was "in good health" considering the 24-day ordeal.

Captor's demands

Cantoni, an aid worker for 10 years, had been in Afghanistan since March 2002 and runs a program called "Humanitarian Assistance for the Women of Afghanistan" for CARE.

Afghan television stations aired a videotape of Cantoni on May 29 after some media outlets reported she had been killed.

Those reports prompted denials from her purported captor, Temur Shah, who had threatened to kill her if the government failed to meet his demands.

Those demands included more Islamic schools, more aid for opium farmers and the removal of a liberal radio show from the airwaves.

Cantoni is the fourth Italian to be kidnapped and released in the last 12 months. Three others were freed in a "coalition operation," and two more were killed by their kidnappers.

In March, journalist Giuliana Sgrena was the last hostage released. Moments later, she was wounded and the Italian intelligence agent who negotiated her release was killed when U.S. soldiers fired on their car at a checkpoint.

The United States and Italy ultimately agreed to disagree on the cause of the shooting, with the Americans saying the car drove toward the checkpoint fast and failed to acknowledge warnings and the Italians saying the opposite was true.

Last September, two other aid workers were kidnapped and later released. Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were working for a humanitarian group called "Bridge to Baghdad" when insurgents raided their office.

Last August, journalist Enzo Baldoni was abducted and killed.

Four other Italians, unidentified by authorities, were abducted on April 12. One of them was killed by his captors soon afterward. But the other three, along with a Pole kidnapped at the same time, were freed by coalition forces in early August.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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