Released German Hostages Return From Iraq

Two German engineers returned to Berlin on Wednesday a day after they were released unharmed following 99 days in captivity in Iraq — a result one said "we don't take for granted."

Rene Braeunlich and Thomas Nitzschke stepped down from a plane at Tegel military airport. The pair appeared in good health but visibly tired, with dark circles ringing their eyes.

They each spoke briefly to the news media, thanking the government for its efforts to free them, the thousands of people who held candlelight vigils for them, and their families.

"We are very happy to still be alive, which we don't take for granted," Nitzschke said.

"I am happy to be back home," Braeunlich said. "We had a difficult time."

After their statements, they boarded a minivan that government officials said would take them to a private reunion with their families.

The pair were released Tuesday after being held hostage since Jan. 24. The Foreign Ministry declined to provide details on how the pair were freed — including whether a ransom was paid — citing safety reasons.

Braeunlich, 32, and Nitzschke, 28, both employees of Cryotec Anlagenbau AG near Leipzig, were kidnapped on their way to work at an Iraqi government-owned detergent plant in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.

Shortly after they were taken hostage, the pair were shown in a video made public on Jan. 31. Their kidnappers demanded that Germany close its embassy and stop cooperating with the Iraqi government. Their demands were not met.

In February, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the men's mothers appealed for their immediate release in separate taped statements broadcast on Al-Jazeera television.

For months, there was no news about the men until a second video was made public April 9. It showed them pleading for help in front of a banner bearing the name of the kidnappers' group, the Brigade of Supporters of the Sunna and Tawhid.

There was more silence until Tuesday, when the government announced the men's release.

Hundreds flocked to the Nikolaikirche, or Church of St. Nicholas, in Leipzig, where weekly vigils were held throughout the men's captivity. People embraced, set off fireworks and toasted the news.