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Aid worker released by Afghan kidnapper

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Italian aid worker kidnapped at gunpoint in the Afghan capital three weeks ago has been released and has telephoned her mother to say she is safe and healthy, the government said yesterday.

Clementina Cantoni, 32, was abducted by armed men on May 16. She was working for CARE International on a project helping Afghan widows and their families.

''Yes, she has been released. She is at the Ministry of Interior. She has spoken with her mother by phone," Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal said.

''I am happy to say that Clementina is well. . . . She is in good health given the 24-day ordeal she went through," Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said later at a news conference.

Jalali said no ransom was paid or other concessions given to obtain her freedom.

Her release was met with euphoria in Italy. ''She's free! She's free!" shouted a family friend Marco Formigoni, who was with Cantoni's parents in Milan when they received the news, the Sky TG 24 television network reported.

The kidnapping was the latest in a spate of violence that has shaken Afghanistan and raised fears that militants here were copying the tactics of those in Iraq.

It was not immediately clear when Cantoni would return home. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini told state-run TV RAI television, ''We are working on her return, which will take place as soon as possible."

Jalali said combined pressure from the Afghan public, President Hamid Karzai, tribal leaders and Muslim clerics persuaded the kidnapper, whom he described as a criminal, to release her.

Jalali said negotiators worked ''relentlessly, tried to use every channel, every effort to win the release of Clementina. We had 24 days of sleepless nights and we are happy that it paid off."

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