By Robert Birsel
KABUL, June 10 (Reuters) - Italian officials prepared to bring aid worker Clementina Cantoni home from Afghanistan on Friday, hours after kidnappers released her from 24 days in captivity.
Shortly after an aircraft arrived from Italy to take her back, a speeding convoy that included vehicles from the Italian embassy was seen entering the military side of Kabul International Airport.
"It has just arrived," an airport official said of the special flight from Italy. "It will go back in one hour."
Four gunmen seized Cantoni, 32, from a car on a Kabul street on May 16.
She was released on Thursday evening. The government said she was fine and had been held hostage by a criminal gang. No ransom had been paid or concessions given for her freedom, it said.
President Hamid Karzai praised the work of his Interior Ministry, security forces and tribal elders in securing her release.
KIDNAPPING SPARKED PROTESTS
Despite the happy ending, the kidnapping has been another blow for Karzai and his U.S.-backed government as it struggles to impose its authority while battling Taliban insurgents and a wave of crime.
Cantoni's abduction mobilised protesters in Italy and Afghanistan, where she had been living for three years and working for aid agency Care International helping impoverished widows. They had held a series of rallies calling for her freedom.
Her abduction raised fresh fears of Iraq-style kidnappings by anti-government insurgents or criminals. Cantoni appeared in a videotape on May 29 looking tense and flanked by two men pointing rifles at her.
Her release was the result of hard work by the police and many others, including tribal elders and Muslim clerics, the government said.
"A tribal jirga (traditional assembly) of senior elders, they were negotiating on behalf of the Ministry of Interior, they brought her back," said ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.
Officials have declined to reveal the kidnappers' demands or identity them except to say they were criminals, not Islamic militants.
"Police and security forces are pursuing them. We are trying our best to bring them to justice," Mashal said.
He could not confirm speculation that the leader of the gang was a kidnapper named Timoor Shah, who was demanding the release of his mother, jailed after another kidnapping earlier this year.
Cantoni was handed over to the Italian embassy late on Thursday and Italian officials said she would fly back to Rome on Friday.
Three foreign U.N. election workers were kidnapped in October and held for 27 days before being released. Their kidnappers were believed to have been criminals linked to a Taliban faction.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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