The brother of a British engineer held hostage in Iraq said he was encouraged about a possible release after two Italian aid workers were freed after three weeks, while Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) said the British government was trying to contact the man's abductors.

Italians Simona Pari (search) and Simona Torretta (search), both 29, returned to Rome on Tuesday to joyous scenes of celebration.

"We are all heartened by this," Paul Bigley, brother of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, was quoted as saying Wednesday by The Times newspaper. "I am overjoyed for their families.

"I realize that their kidnappers are a different kettle of fish to those holding my brother, but they are still baddies," Bigley said.

There have been conflicting, unsubstantiated reports on the fate of Bigley, who was kidnapped from an upscale Baghdad neighborhood on Sept. 16 with two American colleagues.

Gruesome videos of the executions of the Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, have appeared on the Internet.

A man who appeared to be Bigley appeared on a videotape posted on an Islamic Web site a week ago weeping and pleading for Blair to help save his life.

Blair said Wednesday that the government was trying to contact Bigley's kidnappers, who are believed to be loyal to the al-Qaida linked Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"The difficulty is that we are trying to make contact with this particular group, because these are outside people, they are not Iraqis ... they are outside terrorist groups, and we are trying to make contact with them and we are doing everything we possibly can," Blair told Britain's ITV television.

"As I always say to people, it is probably better if I don't go into details of all that. But our thoughts continue to be with the Bigley family, who have been extraordinary."

Pari and Torretta, the two Italians, were back in Italy hours after they were released Tuesday. They smiled and held hands at a military airport outside Rome as they were welcomed by Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who had announced their release earlier in the day. Relatives, friends and colleagues also greeted them.

Asked by reporters how she felt, Pari said, "Good," and smiled.

"It went well. We have been treated with a lot of respect," Torretta told Italian news agencies.

The two women, both 29, were handed over to the Red Cross along with two Iraqis who were abducted with them in Baghdad on Sept. 7. The four were working for the aid agency "Un Ponte Per ..." ("A Bridge To..."), and were involved in school and water projects.

The Arab television network Al-Jazeera showed footage of the handover on an Iraqi road at dusk. Both women stripped away the head coverings they wore — full black veils that revealed only their eyes — and smiled broadly. Both appeared to be in good health.

Torretta spoke in Arabic, saying, "Thank you very much. Goodbye. Thank you." Pari remained silent.

Back in Italy, the nation celebrated.

The Vatican said Pope John Paul II, who recently urged that all hostages held in Iraq be freed, expressed "great joy."

But there has been no word on the fate of Bigley.

The militants claiming responsibility for his abduction have demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners at American-controlled prisons. The United States says there are only two high-profile women in custody and has ruled out releasing them.

Paul Bigley has urged Blair to make a personal plea for his brother, saying silence from the prime minister would be "the kiss of death" for his brother.

Britain's deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said Tuesday that Blair was doing "everything he possibly can" to save Bigley, but the government has ruled out negotiating with the kidnappers.

Members of a British Muslim delegation that visited Iraq to work for Bigley's release said Tuesday they believed he was alive.

The two-person Muslim Council of Britain delegation said at a London news conference that they believed their brief visit to Baghdad had helped, although they did not meet anyone with direct links to the kidnappers.

"We have had very encouraging advice and promises that we hope will lead to the release of Ken," said Daud Abdullah. He did not provide details.

Hopes also rose for two French journalists abducted more than a month ago. On Tuesday a French negotiator told the Al-Arabiya television network he had secured a promise for the release of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.