BUCHAREST - Romania's Arab community won praise here Tuesday for playing a key role in securing the release of three journalists after an eight-week hostage ordeal in Iraq.
The newspaper Evenimentul Zilei said the Arab community "held the key to freedom" for the three journalists who were kidnapped on March 28 and returned home to an emotional welcome in Romania on Monday night.
"Since President Traian Basescu says that he did not compromise his foreign policy or agree to pay a ransom, the Arab community could have played an important role in their release," it added.
"They have been suspected of having links with terrorists and accused of shady dealings, but Romania's Arabs played an important role, especially early in the crisis, by paving the way for negotiations" with the kidnappers, said political analyst Cristian Parvulescu.
"Though obviously, questions remain about their actual role, the circumstances and the reasons why they intervened," he added.
Initially, the kidnapping caused tension between the authorities in Bucharest and the country's rich and influential Arab community, which counts about 1,000 Iraqis.
Romania's Arabs cried foul when prosecutors announced a clampdown on Arab businessmen suspected of fraud and tax evasion shortly after the journalists disappeared.
The Romanian press has asked why the Arab community mobilised itself so strongly to secure their release and on Monday night it was suggested in a debate on TVR national television that they may have done so in exchange for an undertaking from the government to leave them in peace.
Mohamad Zassin, a businessman and president of the Union of Romanian Arabs, said he was directly involved in negotiations with the kidnappers, a group calling themselves the Muadh Ibn Jabal Brigade.
"Our first contact with the kidnappers was very difficult but we helped the Romanian authorities throughout the negotiations to secure the freedom of Marie-Jeanne Ion, Sorin Miscoci, Eduard Ohanesian and their guide Mohamed Munaf," he said.
In Baghdad on Monday, a top adviser at the Romanian embassy who supervised the negotiations, credited the breakthrough to an intervention by four Romanian Muslim clerics headed by Fares al-Lakta, who chairs the Romanian Islamic and Cultural League.
"This release is the result of a call by the Islamic authorities of Romania, who deployed tremendous efforts to make their voice heard," Octavian Harseu said.