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Germany

German Ex-Hostages Arrive in Berlin

Rene Bräunlich and Thomas Nitzschke, the two men who were held by kidnappers in Iraq for 99 days, have safely landed in the German capital.

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First steps in Germany: Nitzschke (left) and Bräunlich in Berlin

Both men gave brief statements moments after stepping off the plane. They thanked German authorities in Berlin and Baghdad for making their release possible.

"I am happy to be home again," Bräunlich said. "We had a difficult time."

"We're glad to be alive," Nitzschke added.

Earlier in the day, Bräunlich, 32, and Thomas Nitzschke, 28, were driven from the German embassy in Baghdad to board a flight home. They spent 99 days in captivity after being seized by heavily armed men as they travelled by car to an oil refinery in Baiji, 200 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad, on Jan. 24.

Their captors were a group called Ansar al-Tawheed wal Sunna (Followers of Unity and Prophetic Tradition), which had issued a series of constantly changing videotaped demands.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the men had been held in "inhumane conditions" but that they were unhurt.

No details o n possible ra n som payme n t

Gernot Erler

Gernot Erler

Many German newspapers said that a ransom had been paid, but the government refused to confirm the reports and gave few details of the circumstances of their release.

"Any indication of this could lead to copycat attempts," said Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler. "Unfortunately there is already speculation about this which does nothing to help prevent future cases."

Erler added the men had been released as a result of "help from our friends, all of our friends, including the Americans on the ground there." He confirmed that the government was now certain that the men's kidnappers had criminal, not political, aims.

"When we analyzed the four videotapes (released by the kidnappers) there were indications that this was not the hard core of terrorists with political demands, but part of the hostage-taking industry which has unfortunately developed in Iraq," he told German public television station ARD.

Der Tagesspiegel newspaper reported that Iraqi middlemen had delivered the hostages to the German embassy in Baghdad. Iraq's ambassador to Germany, Alaa Al-Hashimy, said he believed a ransom had been paid to free the men.

"I don't know for sure, but I suspect that at the end a lot of money was paid," he told ARD television.

Leipzig celebrates

There was joy at the news of the men's release in their hometown of Leipzig in eastern Germany.

Leipzigs Oberbuergermeister Burghard Jung zeigt ein Flugblatt mit der Information ueber die Freilassung der Geiseln im Irak

Leipzig's Mayor Burkhard Jung holds up a sign that reads: "The hostages are free, thank God"

Residents gathered on Tuesday to celebrate outside the Nicholas Church where they have held weekly candlelit vigils to pray for their release.

"This is the best news we have had all year," said priest Christian Führer.

The head of the company which had sent the two men to Iraq to install machinery said a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

"We worried and we hoped constantly," Cryotec boss Peter Bienert told the N24 TV news channel. "We never gave up hope."

There were also reports of a ransom being paid when German archeologist and aid worker Susanne Osthoff was released in Iraq in December after being held hostage for three weeks. The German government also refused to comment on those reports.

Dozens of foreigners are being held hostage in Iraq, as well as hundreds of Iraqis kidnapped by insurgents and criminal groups.

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