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Italian reporter and Belgian writer kidnapped in Syria released

A photo of La Stampa's Domenico Quirico, one of the four Italian journalists kidnapped by suspected Libyan regime loyalists, as the group traveled down a highway to Tripoli on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. The Italian foreign ministry said the four were abducted on a stretch of highway between Zawiya, a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tripoli, and the Libyan capital. Those kidnapped include two reporters from Milan daily Corriere della Sera, one from Turin's La Stampa and one from Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Catholic bishops Conference.
A photo of La Stampa's Domenico Quirico, one of the four Italian journalists kidnapped by suspected Libyan regime loyalists, as the group traveled down a highway to Tripoli on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. The Italian foreign ministry said the four were abducted on a stretch of highway between Zawiya, a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tripoli, and the Libyan capital. Those kidnapped include two reporters from Milan daily Corriere della Sera, one from Turin's La Stampa and one from Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Catholic bishops Conference. Lapresse/AP Photo

ROME – An Italian war reporter and a Belgian writer who were kidnapped in Syria in April were freed on Sunday, the Italian government said.

A few hours after the announcement, Domenico Quirico, a correspondent for the Turin daily La Stampa, stepped off a plane at a Rome airport and was embraced by Italy’s foreign minister. The Belgian man, Pierre Piccinin, was also free and was flown to Italy along with Quirico, Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s office said in a statement.

The Belgian journalist said on Monday he was certain Bashar Assad’s regime was not responsible for the chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21st.

Pierre Piccinin said he and the Italian journalist he was held alongside, La Stampa’s Domenico Quirico, got the information from overhearing a rebel conversation and would release full details later.

“Domenico and I have a moral duty to say that it’s not Bashar al-Assad government that used sarin, or any other gas, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, we’re certain of that after a conversation that we interrupted,” Piccinin told Belgian TV channel RTL.

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Piccinin’s claim stands in stark contrast to declassified intelligence reports from France and the U.S., which put the blame for the deadly attack on Assad’s regime.

He did not provide proof during the interview, saying he and Quirico will release their information simultaneously at a later date.

Letta’s office said “hope had never faded” for Quirico’s safe return but gave no details on how he became free, nor said who had held him.

Quirico, looking weary, told reporters on the tarmac of Rome’s Ciampino airport early Monday that he felt as if he had “been living on Mars” for the past five months, and that his isolation from the news was such that he didn’t even know who had been elected Italian president this spring.

“I was treated badly,” Quirico said, when a reporter asked how his abductors had treated him. La Stampa described him as exhausted but in good health.

A veteran war correspondent used to reporting from the front lines, Quirico had entered Syria from Lebanon on April 6 and disappeared three days later while travelling to the city of Homs in war-torn Syria. La Stampa said Piccinin had been kidnapped along with Quirico.

“I had tried to tell the story of the Syrian revolution but … the revolution turned into something else,” Quirico said.

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Sky TG24 TV said Italian prosecutors in Rome would talk to Quirico on Monday about his kidnapping before he heads to his home in northern Italy.

Letta called Belgium’s prime minister with the good news about Piccinin, the Italian news agency ANSA said.

Still missing in Syria is an Italian Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, a well-known figure who activists said had gone to meet with al-Qaida-linked militants. The priest went missing in July.

Dall’Oglio is a critic of the regime of President Bashar Assad, which the rebels are fighting to overthrow. The government a year ago expelled him from Syria, where he had lived for 30 years.

WATCH: Freed Belgian journalist says he believes Assad regime not behind chemical weapons attack (in French – translation below)

Translation: “I didn’t exactly say that… For the moment, for ethical reasons, Domenico and I are determined not to release the information yet – it’s rather logical, in Italy Domenico needs to go through the judiciary before he can talk about what we saw there, so when La Stampa thinks the time is right to reveal the information, I’ll do so at the same time, in the media of my choice here in Belgium. That said, Domenico and I have a moral duty to say that it’s not the Bashar al-Assad government that used sarin, or any other gas, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, we’re certain of that after a conversation that we interrupted, even though it costs me to say so because I’ve supported the Free Syrian Army passionately since May 2012, in its fair fight for democracy.”

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