MILAN (AP) — Italy's foreign minister on Friday denied media reports that Italy had paid $12 million in ransom to free two young aid workers held for five months in Syria, telling lawmakers "we are against paying ransom."
A report from Middle Eastern media that Italy had paid $12 million to free 21-year-old Greta Ramelli and 20-year-old Vanessa Marzullo sparked debate in Italy about financing terrorism through ransoms. Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said, if true, such a payment would be "grotesque."
Hours after Ramelli and Marzullo stepped off a plane in Rome, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told the lower house of Parliament the reports of a ransom "were void of any basis in reality" and expressed surprise "that these sources were given credit without any verification."
"We are against paying ransom," Gentiloni said, adding Italy follows "the rules and behaviors" shared by the international community.
Gentiloni's explanation drew skepticism from opposition lawmakers, who said he did not go far enough in clarifying whether there had been any exchange of money.
"Did you pay or not?" asked Maria Edera Spadoni of the 5-Star Movement.
Italian media have speculated that a brief video released on New Year's Eve contained an encoded ransom message for the Italian government. Dressed in black garb typical of devout Syrian women, the young aid workers asked the Italian government to help bring them home, with Ramelli saying they could be killed.
The women were kidnapped overnight July 31 on their third visit to Syria as part of a project called Horryaty, which, according to its Facebook page, was aimed at distributing aid in Syria.
It remains unclear who was responsible for their capture, although suspicion has focused on the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.
Another Italian, the Rev. Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit priest, has been missing in Syria since July 2013. Gentiloni said authorities were working to secure his release and that of 39-year-old Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, missing in Pakistan since January 2012.