Italian Hostage Freed in Afghanistan

An Italian aid worker held hostage for more than three weeks in Afghanistan (search) has been released in good health, the Interior Ministry said Thursday.

Clementina Cantoni (search), 32, was safely at the Interior Ministry and has spoken to her mother by telephone, Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal told The Associated Press.

Cantoni "is in good health, given the 24-day ordeal she went through," he said later at a news conference.

No ransom was paid and no concessions were given to her kidnappers, he said.

"Everything went well. We have talked to Clementina, and she is well," said her father, Fabio Cantoni, speaking outside the family's home in Milan. "She still has the sense of humor she's always had."

Combined pressure from the Afghan public, President Hamid Karzai (search), tribal leaders and Muslim clerics helped win her release, Mashal said.

Another ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Cantoni was set free in Logar province, just south of Kabul, where police picked her up.

Cantoni was abducted by armed men May 16 as she was being driven to her home in the capital, Kabul, where she was working for CARE International on a project helping Afghan widows and their families.

In Rome, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi expressed his "great joy and deep relief that Clementina has been returned to freedom and to the affection of her loved ones," a statement by his office said.

Ciampi thanked the Afghan government and Italian officials who worked to win the hostage's release.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, began a religious gathering in St. John Lateran Basilica by giving the news, the ANSA news agency reported.

"I want to immediately give you some good news: Clementina Cantoni has just been released," Ruini said, and about 2,000 people at the gathering broke into applause, the agency said.

In Milan, family friend Marco Formigoni, who was with Cantoni's parents when they received the news, screamed "She's free! She's free!" according to Sky TG 24.

"We are very emotional and very happy," added Beatrice Spadaccini, an Italian who works with CARE International in Kabul. "We know she is well, we know she called home." Spadaccini expressed gratitude to the Italian and Afghan governments as well as to "all of Clementina's friends who have shown their solidarity and their desire to have her back."

Afghan officials had been optimistic about her release in recent days.

Last month, a video of Cantoni was broadcast on local television. On it, she was shown sitting next to two men who pointed assault rifles at her head.