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Iraq captors wanted US$5 million ransom

KUWAIT - The Kuwaiti newspaper that predicted the release of two Italian hostages in Iraq says the captors had originally demanded a US$5 million ($7.56 million) ransom but settled for US$1 million in the end.

"A cleric mediated to get the amount of the ransom lowered," said Ali el-Roz, managing editor of leading daily al-Rai al-Aam.

"When they asked for the US$5 million, the cleric who is mediating told the captors that they can't set conditions but rather that they have to accept conditions imposed on them."

Roz also said in an interview that the clerics mediating for the Italians' release had strongly urged the captors against killing Italian charity workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta.

"One of the clerics drew up for the kidnappers this image of how negatively killing women would reflect on Arabs and Muslims," Roz told Reuters.

He said he believed the captors belonged to a Jihadist movement set up shortly after the April 2003 fall of Baghdad in the US-led war which toppled Saddam Hussein.

"It is a big faction which includes many members and is concentrated in the Sunni Triangle of Falluja, Baquba and Ramadi and in Baghdad," Roz said.

The two Simonas, both aged 29, were snatched from their Baghdad office on September 7, and were not heard of until their release on Tuesday. Unlike other kidnappers, the group holding the women had not released any pictures or footage showing them.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini tried to quash talk about a ransom cash payment, saying Italy just capitalised on years of good deeds in the Arab world to secure their release.

But most newspapers and a leading figure in the ruling coalition spoke openly of a ransom of US$1 million or more. The issue caused little controversy in Italy, which has a long history of paying money to home-grown kidnap gangs.

Relating how the saga unfolded, Roz said that on September 19, an Italian delegation arrived in Baghdad to look into the possibility of conducting negotiations with the kidnappers.

The next day, the delegation met with tribal chiefs and clerics to discuss the possible release of the hostages.

"The captors first demanded Italian forces withdraw from Iraq to accept to start negotiations. The Italian delegation ... apologised that their government cannot implement such a demand," Roz said. A similar account was published in Wednesday's edition of his newspaper.

At that point, negotiations stopped for three days, during which two unknown factions announced the execution of the two hostages. However al-Rai al-Aam, in its September 25 issue, said the two Simonas were alive and being treated properly.

"The source in Iraq close to the Jihadist faction interfered and sent us the first indication... They leaked the news to al-Rai al-Aam that the two Italian women are alive," Roz said.

"They even told us that one of the women was asking for certain types of foods and biscuits. This was a sort of clue," later confirmed by the mother of one of the two hostages to Italian reporters, he added.

"She said her daughter was a fussy eater," Roz said.

In its own account, al-Rai al-Aam said that on Monday, September 27, the sources told the daily that the captors asked for a US$5 million ransom, but the delegation replied that it was not able to secure more than US$1 million.

After lengthy negotiations, and mediation by tribal chiefs and religious clerics, the captors settled on the smaller ransom in exchange for the two Simonas' freedom, the paper said.

The captors got US$500,000 on Monday, then they allowed one of the negotiators to go with them to make sure the two women were alive and on Tuesday the kidnappers got the remaining US$500,000.

The two women were later that day handed over to a tribal chief and a cleric who handed them over to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, it said. "It was a happy ending," Roz told Reuters.