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German hostages freed in Iraq

Written by: Staff
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BERLIN, May 2 (Reuters) Two German engineers held hostage in Iraq for more than three months have been freed and will fly home tomorrow, Germany's foreign minister said.

The two men were abducted on January 24 outside their workplace in the industrial town of Baiji, 180 km north of Baghdad. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said they had been freed without warning and appeared to be unharmed.

''I am very pleased to inform you that the two kidnapped men from Leipzig, Rene Braeunlich and Thomas Nitzschke, have been freed today,'' Steinmeier said in a statement. He said the men, being looked after in Germany's embassy in Baghdad, were expected to return home tomorrow.

''After spending more than thee months under inhumane conditions they are in German care,'' added Steinmeier, who was on an official visit to Chile.

Since the kidnapping, hundreds of people had gathered in their hometown of Leipzig, eastern Germany, for weekly vigils, placing flowers and lighting candles.

Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to the supporters.

''I would like to thank the families and all those people in Leipzig who refused to forget about the hostages,'' she said.

Reinhard Silberberg, the Foreign Ministry's state secretary in charge of the hostage task force, told a news conference he could not provide any details about their release.

''I ask for your understanding that the government can give no further details about this case ... or about the circumstances of the release,'' said Silberberg, who walked away without answering questions after the brief statement.

CHEERS Another German hostage, archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, was freed in December after being held hostage in Iraq for three weeks. German media have quoted unidentified diplomats as saying Berlin paid the kidnappers 5 million dollars for her release.

The German government is known to have paid ransoms for hostages in the past, but refused to comment on whether it did so for Osthoff.

People cheered the news in Leipzig.

''I am so over the moon, I am so happy for the two, for their families and friends,'' said Frank Siegemund, a work colleague.

Since their abduction, four videos of the hostages had been shown in which their captors had made various demands.

In the last video broadcast in April, the group Ansar al-Tawhid Wa-Sunna demanded the release of all prisoners held by US-led forces in Iraq and said the pair would be killed if its call was ignored.

In a video released in late January, the group demanded that Germany end its cooperation with the Iraqi government and close its mission in Baghdad, and that German firms stop their dealings there.

More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Most foreign hostages have been released.

But 55 foreign hostages have been reported executed by their captors -- 41 in 2004, 13 in 2005 and one in 2006.

Osthoff, who converted to Islam and lived in Iraq, was seized heading north from Baghdad by gunmen who threatened in a videotape to kill her and her driver unless Germany ended all support for the Iraqi government.

REUTERS DKS RN0031

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