Two young Italian women taken hostage in Syria five months ago by Islamic extremists were released and returned to their homes on Friday.
The two women, Vanessa Marzullo, 21, and Greta Ramelli, 20, arrived at Rome's Campiano airport early on Friday morning, accompanied by Italian government officials in a private plane and greeted by Italy's foreign minister, Reuters reports.
Marzullo's father, Salvatore, said: "I'm feeling such enormous joy: this is the news I have been waiting for a long time."
The two women were abducted from the Syrian town of Aleppo in July while working as aid workers. In December, the two appeared in a YouTube video wearing traditional Islamic attire and revealing they were being detained by al Qaeda's Syria wing, the Nusra Front.
"We are in big danger and we could be killed. The government and its militaries are responsible (for) our lives," one of the women said in English, appearing to read from a statement.
Nusra Front and the militant Islamic State group have held groups of Westerners hostage in Syria, which is currently involved in a brutal civil war. Last year, IS beheaded journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff and three Western aid workers, including American Peter Kassig. BBC News reports that Nusra Front released other hostages last year, including a group of Greek Orthodox nuns in March and a U.S. writer in August.
According to La Repubblica newspaper, the December video of the two Italian women served as a "proof of life" for negotiators and allowed the government to begin negotiating for their release--a move which has been heavily criticized.
"I'm happy that the girls are free and alive," says Riccardo Pelliccetti, a top editor at the conservative daily Il Giornale after a Dubai-based media outlet reported that the Italian government paid a $13.8 million ransom for their release. "But the fact remains that when you bow to blackmail, you've lost the game."
According to an investigation by the New York Times, Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups have garnered at least $125 million in money paid in ransoms since 2008. Italy, along with France and Spain, is believed to regularly pay ransoms to secure the release of its citizens if they are kidnapped or held as hostages.
"There is a common understanding in Italy that life is the superior value, so everything should be done in order to save people," Sergio Fabbrini, a professor of political science and international relations at Rome's LUISS University, explained to TIME Magazine. "Our Catholic attitude tends to hold life as an absolute."