Italy denies paying ransom to free aid workers

Two female Italian aid workers, who were taken hostage in Syria more than five months ago, have been released.

Greta Ramelli, second left and Vanessa Marzullo are welcomed in Rome by Italys foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, left. Picture: Getty

Greta Ramelli, 20, and ­Vanessa Marzullo, 21, were greeted by Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, as they arrived at Rome airport yesterday. No ­details have been provided on the circumstances ­behind their release.

Mr Gentiloni denied reports Italy paid $12 million (£7.9m) in ransom to free the women.

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He said reports of the money being paid “were void of any basis in reality and in some cases spread by ­terrorists” .

However, the Dubai-based broadcaster Al Aan reported that Italy had paid money in exchange for the two women, sparking debate in Italy about ransom payments and drawing harsh words from opposition politicians.

Nonetheless, Mr Gentiloni told the lower house Italy was “against payment of ransom” and followed “the rules and behaviours” shared by the international community.

Both women had been working on humanitarian projects when abducted in July 2014 in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

Yesterday, they were taken to a hospital for a check-up after they landed in Rome before meeting ­anti-terror prosecutors, who have opened an investigation into their abduction.

Earlier, Miss Marzullo’s father, Salvatore, said: “I’m feeling such enormous joy: this is the news I have been waiting for a long time.”

The women were working for the aid group Horryaty when kidnapped.

In a video showing the hostages, released two weeks ago, their captors said the women were being detained by the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. It was dated 17 December 2014.

“We are in big danger and we could be killed,” one of the women said in the video, speaking in English. “The government and its militaries are responsible [for] our lives.”

The Italian foreign ministry insisted their release was the result of “intense work by team Italy”, without providing details.

Italy has paid ransoms for captives in the past while both the al-Nusra Front and its rival, ­Islamic State, have taken hostages during the conflict in Syria.

Almost 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the escalating conflict between forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule.

Syria’s bloody internal conflict has destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forced more than nine million people from their homes. More than three million people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, most of them women and children. It is one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history and accelerated dramatically in 2013, as conditions in Syria deteriorated.

A further 6.5 million people, half of them children, are believed to be internally displaced within Syria, bringing the total forced to flee to more than 9.5 million – half the population.