BAGHDAD -- Kidnappers in Iraq freed seven hostages yesterday, releasing two female Italian aid workers who were abducted from their home three weeks ago, two of the women's Iraqi colleagues and three Egyptian employees of a local cell phone company.
The releases, after several beheadings of foreign hostages, raised hopes in the international community that other captives in Iraq may be freed. At least 18 foreigners, including a Briton, two Frenchmen, and 10 Turks, are believed to be in captivity. A French negotiator told an Arab TV station yesterday that the two French journalists held since last month could be let go within 48 hours.
The freed Italians, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, had been in Iraq working on humanitarian projects to improve schools and water infrastructure. They were kidnapped Sept. 7 in a bold daylight attack, and their ordeal had transfixed and anguished the Italian public.
A video of the women's release, aired on the Al-Jazeera network, showed the two aid workers lifting their black veils and smiling broadly upon being greeted by Maurizio Scelli, head of the Italian Red Cross in Baghdad. One of the women turned to a man, possibly a hostage mediator, and said in Arabic: ''Thank you very much. Goodbye."
The women were quickly flown to Italy and were greeted about 11:15 p.m. at Rome's Ciampino airport by a small group of friends and family members, as well as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Asked by reporters how she felt, Pari said, ''Good," and smiled.
''It went well. We have been treated with a lot of respect," Torretta told Italian news agencies.
The two women then boarded a helicopter, which took them away to be debriefed by government officials.
Over the last three weeks, at least two militant groups had claimed responsibility for abducting the women and issued various demands, including the withdrawal of Italy's 3,000 troops from Iraq. Berlusconi has refused to give in to such demands, even after Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was killed by kidnappers last month.
After being notified of the release, Berlusconi went on TV to inform the public, then addressed Parliament. ''Finally, a moment of joy," he told lawmakers.
Relatives of the two women -- who became known in Italy as Le Simone, or the Simonas -- appeared on their balconies yesterday evening, some of them weeping and waving to reporters.
''Love won," Anna Maria Torretta said of her daughter's release. ''I prayed and I keep praying. It's like being reborn, after the darkness comes the light."
Both women had adamantly opposed the invasion of Iraq and had worked in the country for several years. Their humanitarian agency, A Bridge to Baghdad, released a statement saying: ''The only piece of news we wanted to hear has arrived. There will be time later to find out exactly how it all happened, but for now we just want to thank everyone who played a part in bringing this about."
An Iraqi man and woman, Raad Ali Abdul Aziz and Mahnouz Bassam, who were kidnapped with the Italians and worked with the same aid organization, were also released. In television interviews aired in Iraq, the Iraqis said they had been well-treated by the kidnappers.
Despite claims on two Islamic websites that the Italian women had been killed, Muslim leaders from Italy and Baghdad continued to work in recent days to secure their release. Individuals claiming to represent the hostage-takers began contacting potential go-betweens, according to one individual who said he was approached.
The Italian government mounted a vigorous campaign to free the women, with senior officials canvassing the Arab world in search of help and support. Berlusconi, whose statements critical of Islam have inflamed passions in the past, had kept relatively quiet until yesterday.
A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that the women's families and employer paid a $1 million ransom, but officials in Iraq and Italy would not confirm that.
US military officials and Iraqi security forces were not involved in the negotiations, but offered assistance and monitored developments daily, said Sabah Kadhim, a senior official in Iraq's Interior Ministry.
''We're delighted," he said last night. ''It never should have happened in the first place."
But Kadhim warned that the release of the hostages does not mean that the kidnapping threat in Iraq is over. ''As long as there is money to be made, criminal gangs will continue to do this," he said.
In other developments, US forces launched airstrikes on the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City for the second consecutive day yesterday, and two British soldiers were killed in an ambush in the southern city of Basra.
Sadr City, a Shi'ite-dominated area in the eastern part of the capital, is a stronghold of the Mahdi militia led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Although his forces have been weakened by their August expulsion from the southern city of Najaf following a prolonged US siege, attacks against US and Iraqi patrols have become a daily occurrence in Sadr City, and visitors report that the streets are dotted with roadside bombs.
Yesterday's attack injured at least three people, according to officials at Sadr City's Jawader Hospital. It was unclear whether any insurgents were killed or injured.
In recent weeks, US forces have launched regular airstrikes on the town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, which is controlled by Sunni Muslim insurgents. The increasing US reliance on air attacks drew criticism yesterday from Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer.
Drawing a parallel between US tactics in Iraq and Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Yawer said the American strikes are viewed by the Iraqi people as ''collective punishment" against entire towns and neighborhoods.