KABUL (Reuters) – Italian aid worker Clementina Cantoni was believed to have left Afghanistan for home on Friday, hours after kidnappers released her from 24 days in captivity.
Cantoni, 32, was believed to have flown out on a small executive Falcon 900 jet that had arrived from Italy earlier in the day, an airport official said.
"The plane that flew in from Italy has gone, it flew back to Italy," said Kabul airport director Mohammad Qasim Jarar.
But Jarar said he could not confirm that Cantoni was on the aircraft that left from the airport”s military side, which is under the control of NATO-led peacekeepers. They declined to comment.
Italian embassy officials were unavailable for comment. Afghan government officials said they had handed Cantoni over to the embassy on Thursday and could not confirm her departure.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said she was expected to arrive in Italy at 1400 GMT, implying she was on the way back but a spokesman declined to confirm she had left Afghanistan.
Four gunmen seized Cantoni, 32, from a car on a Kabul street on May 16. She was released on Thursday. The government said she was fine and had been held hostage by a criminal gang.
No ransom had been paid or concessions given for her freedom, the government said.
But Italian newspapers reported, without citing sources, that Italian secret services had persuaded the Afghan government to release four prisoners, including the mother of the purported kidnap gang leader, in exchange for Cantoni.
Cash was also paid, the newspapers said.
The Italian government has declined to comment, saying the Afghan government was in charge of the affair.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai praised the work of his Interior Ministry, security forces and tribal elders in securing her release.
Despite the happy ending, the kidnapping has been another blow for Karzai and his U.S.-backed government as it struggles to impose its authority while battling Taliban insurgents and a wave of crime.
Cantoni”s abduction mobilized protesters in Italy and Afghanistan, where she had been living for three years and working for aid agency Care International helping impoverished widows. They had held rallies calling for her freedom.
Her abduction raised fresh fears of Iraq-style kidnappings by anti-government insurgents or criminals. Cantoni appeared in a videotape on May 29 looking tense and flanked by two men pointing rifles at her.
Officials have declined to reveal the kidnappers” demands or identity them except to say they were criminals, not Islamic militants.
"We are trying our best to bring them to justice," said interior ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal.
Mashal said he could not confirm reports that the leader of the gang was a kidnapper named Timoor Shah, who was demanding the release of his mother, jailed after another kidnapping this year.
Italian newspapers said Shah”s mother and three other prisoners were freed and cash was also paid.