Rome (AFP) - Italy on Friday brushed aside reports it had paid off Al-Qaeda to secure the release of two Italian aid workers abducted in northern Syria last summer.
Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told parliament that claims that a $12-million (10-million euros) ransom had been paid to free the two young women were "unfounded rumours" emanating from terrorist organisations which should not be given any credence.
But he stopped short of categorically denying any money had changed hands, and came under attack for what was interpreted as a deliberately ambiguous presentation of what had happened.
Greta Ramelli, 20, and Vanessa Marzullo, 21, spent much of Friday being questioned by anti-terrorism prosecutors after arriving back in Rome from Turkey in the early hours of the morning.
Smiling wearily and with heads bowed, the women were ushered into Ciampino airport terminal and taken to hospital for checks.
Italian media reported that the women had later told a prosecutor they were unaware if any ransom had been paid. They also said they had generally been well treated during their captivity and always kept together despite being moved from place to place.
Gentiloni told the Chamber of Deputies that "in terms of hostage taking Italy respects international rules".
He added: "We are against paying ransoms and we take part alongside other countries in multilateral efforts to combat the phenomenon of kidnapping.
"As far as Italians taken hostage are concerned, our priority is always the protection of the lives and physical integrity of our fellow citizens."
The statement was slammed by opposition lawmakers. "The minister should have told us whether or not the Italian government paid a ransom," said Maria Edera Spadoni of the populist Five Star movement. "His statement was useless and that is shocking."
Gentiloni said it had been difficult to know who was holding the two women following their kidnapping on the night of July 31-August 1, 2014.
Italian officials had to deal with a myriad of groups and sub-groups amid a media war between different factions which further blurred the situation, the minister said.
He confirmed that Ramelli and Marzullo had left to work in Syria without notifying the Italian authorities, who would have advised against their trip.
But he defended the idealism of the young women, who were working on their own health and clean water initiative, known as Horryaty. "It is not acceptable to say they asked for it," the minister said to cheers in parliament.
- Al-Nusra link -
Before their release, the women were last heard of on December 31 when a video was posted online showing them dressed in black robes and headscarves and urging the Italian government to do everything it could to bring them home.
The posting on YouTube was entitled "Al-Nusra Front detains two Italian employees because of their government's participation in the coalition against it."
But the video was not posted on any official accounts belonging to Al-Nusra, which is Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.
Italy's foreign ministry had previously denied they were prisoners of the rival Islamic State group.
The liberation of the two women leaves two Italians unaccounted for in conflict zones overseas.
Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio was kidnapped in Syria in July 2013 and aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto disappeared in the tribal zones between Pakistan and Afghanistan in January 2012. Both men are feared dead.
Italy last year secured the release of two construction workers held in Libya and the country has a track record of paying ransoms to get its citizens home safely.
That approach has been controversial with some of its NATO allies, chiefly Britain and the United States, who argue that handing over cash only encourages further abductions and can end up funding terror attacks.
A New York Times investigation last year uncovered evidence that Al-Qaeda affiliates had earned some $125 million from kidnapping since 2008.
In theory, Italy signed up to not paying ransoms at a NATO summit in September 2014 but media reports suggested money changed hands in the Libya cases.
Several lawmakers said Friday that such an approach could no longer be defended.
"The lives of our fellow citizens are sacrosanct and that applies wherever they find themselves," said Senator Domenico Scilipoti Isgro of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
But he added: "We have to reflect on the danger that we could end up financing massacres like Charlie Hebdo."