Hostages, Guide Are Freed

From right television reporter Marie Jeanne Ion, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Romania Libera reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian and cameraman Sorin Miscoci, hold hands shorthly after the three Romanian journalists freed from Iraq descended from a military aircraft in Bucharest Romania Monday May 23 2005.Three Romanian journalists who were held hostage in Iraq for nearly two months arrived home aboard a military plane Monday, a day after their release.
Three Romanian journalists were freed Sunday after nearly two months held hostage in Iraq, President Traian Basescu said.

The journalists were in the custody of Romanian authorities and were expected home Monday, he said. "They are unharmed," said his spokeswoman, Adriana Saftoiu, adding that a fourth hostage, the journalists' Iraqi-American guide, also was released Sunday.

A group calling itself Maadh Bin Jabal said in a videotape aired Sunday on Al-Jazeera television that it decided to free the hostages after an appeal by Romania's Muslims and a Saudi preacher, Salman Bin Fahad al-Oda.

The three Romanians — newspaper reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian, 37, TV reporter Marie-Jeanne Ion, 32, and cameraman Sorin Miscoci, 30 — were kidnapped in Iraq on March 28, along with the guide, Iraqi-American businessman Mohammed Monaf, 42.

Basescu, who headed a top-level crisis team that worked to free the hostages, said Sunday that no ransom was paid and that Romania "did not negotiate its foreign policy." The kidnappers had threatened in an early ransom video to kill the hostages unless Romania pulls its 800 troops out of Iraq.

The president said the operation to free the hostages was carried out by Romanian intelligence agents, and that Romanian investigators were in Baghdad to work with Iraqi authorities in questioning suspects. "The operation is still ongoing ... the case is not closed," he said.

Basescu did not elaborate on the hostages' release, and said more details would be available after the investigation is complete. He thanked Iraqi prosecutors and investigators, and also commended Romania's Arab community for helping in the negotiations.

Ion's father, Vasile Ion, said Basescu informed him about his daughter's release. Vasile Ion, a senator with the opposition Social Democratic Party, had urged Parliament to take a stand on the captors' demands.

"I feel like a piece of me that was missing has now been restored," he told radio Europa FM. "I never lost hope."

Miscoci's mother, Elena, thanked Basescu, the Arab community in Romania and Al-Jazeera for helping save her son. "I am happy ... I escaped from this continuos nightmare," she said.

A Romanian military plane departed for Iraq to bring home the Romanians home, Basescu said. They were expected back in Romania on Monday.

"It's over. The nightmare has ended. We are waiting for them to come home now," said Petre Mihai Bacanu, managing director of the newspaper that employs Ohanesian, Romania Libera.

After the journalists were taken captive, Al-Jazeera aired a video showing the journalists in handcuffs with pistols pointed at their heads. Ion, a reporter for Prima TV, could be seen talking to the camera and clutching her hands as if pleading.

In a separate audio message, the Romanians asked their government to intercede to save their lives. Miscoci, of Prima TV, said he would be the first killed if the Romanian troops were not withdrawn.

Romanians held rallies and prayer vigils urging the release of the three journalists and their guide, who studied in Romania and is married to a Romanian.

The Romanian Islamic and Cultural League sent five representatives Saturday to Baghdad, and Islamic groups in Iraq and elsewhere also urged the captors to free their captives.

In recent weeks, Romanian authorities said they were in contact with the kidnappers, and called on them not to kill the hostages.

Prima TV news director Dan Dumitru said journalists celebrated in the newsroom Sunday.

"These were 55 days of waiting, of fear and hope for us and the parents," he said, adding that the journalists were thankful to Basescu and to "those anonymous people whose names we will never find out but who made this possible."