Two German Hostages Freed in Iraq

Germany's Foreign Minister said Tuesday that two German men taken hostage in Iraq more than three months ago had been released unharmed and were safe.

"I am very pleased to announce that Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich, of Leipzig, as of today are free men again," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement released by his ministry.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was "very relieved and pleased" over the news of the release. She also thanked the thousands of Germans who had held vigils and peaceful demonstrations calling for the release of Nitzschke, 28, and Braeunlich, 32.

"Their families can now rejoice that they are doing well, considering the circumstances, and that everything necessary is being done to bring them safely back to Germany," Merkel said in a televised statement.

Steinmeier, who is traveling in Chile, said the pair were in a safe place in Iraq and were being cared for by German officials there. They were expected to return to Germany already Wednesday, he said.

"Based on initial information, both men are unharmed and in stable condition," Steinmeier said.

Reinhard Silberberg, a deputy to Steinmeier who headed the Foreign Ministry's crisis team, told reporters no details of how the pair were set free.

German President Horst Koehler expressed relief over the safe release of the pair after more than 13 weeks in captivity.

"I, along with all citizens in Germany, rejoice such an end to the kidnapping after long weeks of worry and uncertainty," Koehler said in a statement. "I wish them from the heart that they are able to swiftly overcome the distress they have suffered."

A militant Iraqi group that identified itself in a video as the Brigade of Supporters of the Sunna and Tawhid, kidnapped the pair while they were on their way to work on Jan. 24 at a plant in the northern Iraqi city of Beiji.

Their employer, Leipzig-based Cryotec Anlagenbau AG, has a commercial relationship with an Iraqi government-owned detergent company in the industrial town of Beiji, where Brazilian engineer Joao Jose Vasconcelos Jr. was kidnapped Jan. 19, 2005. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Cryotec head Peter Bienert also thanked the thousands of people, including dozens in his company who participated in weekly vigils in Leipzig, and urged German authorities to do everything possible to secure their release.

"I am very happy," Bienert told N24 television. "We never lost hope."

Two videos showing the pair were released over the course of their captivity, the first several days after their capture. The militants threatened to kill them unless their demands for the German government to close its embassy in Baghdad, withdraw all German companies from Iraq and stop cooperation with the Iraqi government were met. A second video of the two pleading with the government to secure their release was broadcast last month.

Family members of the two and hundreds of citizens in their home city of Leipzig have held regular candlelight vigils and urged for the two to be released safely.