Italian aid workers released amid official denials captors were paid €12m

Dubai-based station reported ransom had been paid to al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing for release of hostages

Italian aid workers Greta Ramelli  (centre) and Vanessa Marzullo are welcomed by Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni at Ciampino’s military airport in Rome on Friday. Photograph: EPA/Massimo Percossi

Italian aid workers Greta Ramelli (centre) and Vanessa Marzullo are welcomed by Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni at Ciampino’s military airport in Rome on Friday. Photograph: EPA/Massimo Percossi

 

Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni in parliament yesterday denied a €12 million ransom had been paid by Italy for the release of two aid workers, Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli, held captive in Syria since July 31st last year but released yesterday.

On Thursday, the Dubai-based satellite television station, Al Aan, without citing sources, reported a ransom had been paid to the al-Nusra front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, for the hostage release. Those reports prompted Northern League leader Matteo Salvini to comment: “The liberation of these two girls fills me with joy but the possible payment of a ransom that would permit these Islamic terrorists to kill again, that would simply be a matter of shame for Italy . . .”

Confronting terrorism

Allegations that Italy might have paid a ransom to secure the release of the two hostages are hardly surprising. When Giuliana Sgrena, a reporter for Italian daily, Il Manifesto, was rescued from Baghdad in March 2005, following a dramatic and bloody covert operation involving Italian secret services, many argued a ransom had been paid. Likewise, when La Stampa reporter Domenico Quirico was airlifted back to Rome in September 2013 after 150 days of captivity in Syria, many media sources claimed a €4 million ransom had been paid.

The abduction of 21-year-old Marzullo and 20-year-old Ramelli also raises questions about the wisdom of the “humanitarian” mission that took them to Syria in the first place. Having founded their own NGO, “Progetto Hurryaty” in January 2013, the two girls travelled to Syria last July in the company of journalist Daniele Ranieri, with supplies and €5,000 in cash, intended for Syrian families displaced by the conflict.

Within three days, they were lured to the home of a local revolutionary council leader in Abizmu, where they were robbed of their money and abducted. During the kidnapping, Ms Ranieri managed to escape and subsequently raise the alarm about the young women.

Nothing was heard of the girls until two weeks ago when their captors released a threatening video in which the girls read a statement saying they were “in big danger”.

In the video, they wore traditional “abayas” – long, black tunics that cover the body and hair but not the face – and looked under stress.

On their arrival in Rome yesterday, both women were taken for medical check-ups prior to being questioned by the Roman public prosecutor’s office, which has opened an investigation into kidnapping for terrorist purposes.

Although the girls declined to meet the press, airport and police sources confirmed they were physically well, if understandably tired.

Reservations

Mr Salvini, the

Northern League leader, was not the only politician to express reservations about the rescue operation. Giorgia Meloni, head of the right-wing Fratelli D’Italia party, said:

“It seems completely mad to me that two ordinary citizens or, worse still, two totally inexpert little girls, can improvise as international aid workers and head off for the risks of a war zone. To do what and for whom? And why should their foolhardy choices then become a problem for the state?”

Foreign minister Gentiloni denied that the girls had “gone looking for trouble”, saying Italy needs volunteers like them.