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Hostage release brings small comfort to NGOs

Their aid agency friends are ecstatic, but Tuesday's release of the "two Simonas" is not expected to bring other foreign aid workers back to Iraq soon, NGOs say. Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, were released near the "Mother of All Battles" mosque in western Baghdad after being held for three weeks by unknown captors. They were immediately taken by charter jet to Rome. "All the NGOs are very excited and happy that the girls are out," an Iraq aid agency spokesman in Amman, Jordan, told IRIN on condition of anonymity. Word of the release spread like wildfire among aid workers currently based in the Jordanian capital Amman who know the women. Virtually all foreign staffers working in Iraq are currently in Amman following the most recent spate of violence and kidnappings against foreigners. The two Italian women were kidnapped in broad daylight at the "Un Ponte Per", or "A Bridge To [Baghdad]", office where they work in central Baghdad near hospitals and other international agencies. Two Iraqi workers taken with them who worked for the Italian aid agency Intersos were also released on Tuesday night, the spokesman said. "Kisses to both girls, whom I know very well, and thanks to everyone for helping to get them released, especially the Jordanian royal family," Branko Dubajic, programme coordinator at South African-based Lifeline, told IRIN. Dubajic is currently in Amman. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan welcomed the release and called for all other hostages, more than 130 people, currently being held in Iraq to be released as well. Kidnapping contradicts fundamental human rights and cannot be justified by any cause, Annan said in a statement. Four demining workers from the German NGO HELP are among the latest aid workers to leave Iraq, they say, due to the beheading of two US citizens working as contractors. "We feel very sad about this situation," Frank McAreavy, head of HELP's demining team in Iraq, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman. Four international staff from the NGO have moved to Amman, where they will be operating from. "We have not stopped our work and will continue to do what we can from outside the country," he added. McAreavy explained that extra bodyguards and electronic monitoring were simply not enough to protect them adequately. "Hostage takers are running out of easy targets and we are more at risk now," he said. NGO workers were temporarily evacuated from Baghdad in April 2004, but returned when the situation stabilised following the initial conflict. Since 2003, HELP worked on demining operations and water projects in the troubled country. "These projects will be pursued by local workers; the project management will be executed from Amman," Berthold Engelmann, project coordinator responsible for Iraq, told IRIN. The NGO has approximately 50 local staff. Two Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were kidnapped on 16 September and then executed separately over two days, reportedly by the Tawhid and Jihad Group. The group has also threatened to kill British national Kenneth Bigley, seized with the two Americans. A French-based aid agency has also decided it will not permanently base foreigners in Iraq at the moment, following the upsurge in violence, a worker told IRIN, declining to allow his name or the name of the agency to be used. A security plan was put in place weeks ago that is now being carried out, he said. The Bridge To Baghdad NGO opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Workers have been in the country for more than 10 years carrying out humanitarian work under international sanctions placed on former President Saddam Hussein following the 1991 Gulf War. For the Iraqi Red Crescent, which has operated continually in Iraq using local workers, threats and kidnapping attempts aren't only for foreigners, Annas al-Azawi, the group's spokesman and an Iraqi, told IRIN. "We didn't like it that they were kidnapped, since they were working only for the good of the Iraqi people," al-Azawi said. "Sometimes we are also considered as foreigners. We have also been warned not to do our work." Two volunteers were recently killed as they travelled in a convoy under a Red Crescent humanitarian flag, taking aid to Najaf a month ago during fighting there, al-Azawi said. The aid was destroyed, he added. The office has received bomb threats from unknown people as well, he added. "We also are getting attacked," al-Azawi said. "Now, there are no procedures to secure our safety. How can we operate?"

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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