Four peace activists kidnapped in Iraq

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Since Friday, 11 foreigners, including an American, have been abducted.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- After a monthslong hiatus in the kidnapping of foreigners, television footage once again showed Westerners held captive: A German archaeologist -- bound and blindfolded -- knelt among masked gunmen in one video and four frightened peace activists were shown in another blurry tape.

The latest attacks are part of a new wave of kidnappings police fear is aimed at disrupting next month's national elections.

There was other violence Tuesday: Two American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, a Sunni cleric was assassinated as he left a mosque, and a suicide car bomber killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounded five.

But while assassinations and car bombings have raged on, abductions of foreigners had fallen off in Iraq as most Westerners fled the country or took refuge in heavily guarded compounds.

Since Friday, however, 11 foreigners, including an American, have been abducted. Six were Iranian pilgrims -- though Iranian television said all were later released.

On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera broadcast video of the four peace activists held by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.

The group claimed its hostages were spies working under the cover of Christian peace activists. The captives -- the American, a Briton and two Canadians -- were members of the Chicago-based aid group Christian Peacemaker Teams, which confirmed they disappeared Saturday.

The footage showed Norman Kember, a retired British professor with a shock of white hair, sitting on the floor with three other men. The camera revealed the 74-year-old Kember's passport, but the other hostages were not identified.

However, Christian Peacemaker Teams confirmed that the others were Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; James Loney, 41, of Toronto; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian electrical engineer.

In a statement, Christian Peacemaker Teams said it strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and blamed the kidnapping on coalition forces.

"We are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. government due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people," the group said.

Christian Peacemaker Teams does not consider itself a fundamentalist organization, a spokeswoman said.

"We are very strict about this: We do not do any evangelism, we are not missionaries," Jessica Phillips told The Associated Press in Chicago. "Our interest is to bring an end to the violence and destruction of civilian life in Iraq."

The group's first activists went to Iraq in 2002, six months before the U.S.-led invasion, Phillips said, adding that a main mission since the invasion has been documenting alleged human rights abuses by U.S. forces.

Loney, a community worker, was leading the Christian group's delegation in Iraq.

Fox, the captive from Virginia, has two children, plays the bass clarinet and the recorder and worked as a professional grocer and at a Quaker youth camp, according to the statement.

Sooden was studying for a masters degree in English literature at Auckland University in New Zealand to prepare for a teaching career.

Kember is a longtime peace activist who once fretted publicly that he was taking the easy way out by protesting in safety at home while British soldiers risked their lives in Iraq. He and his wife of 45 years have two daughters and a grandson, the group said.

The brief, blurry tape was shown the same day a television station displayed a photo of the German hostage. The kidnappers threatened to kill Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver unless Germany halts all contacts with the Iraqi government.

Osthoff and her Iraqi driver were kidnapped Friday, and German's ARD public television said it obtained a video in which the kidnappers made their threats. The station posted a photo on its Web site showing what appears to be Osthoff and her driver blindfolded on the floor, with three masked militants standing by, one with a rocket-propelled grenade.

A German newspaper, the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung, reported that Osthoff had received a kidnap threat last summer from extremists linked to al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that U.S. soldiers brought her from Mosul to Baghdad for her own safety.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, said he was unaware of the report but if true, such a move would have been with the knowledge of the German government and "we would ultimately leave it to them" to comment.

Osthoff's mother told Germany's N24 news station that her daughter was an archaeologist who was working for a German aid organization distributing medicine and medical supplies since before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Germany has ruled out sending troops to Iraq and opposed the U.S.-led war, but has been training Iraqi police and military outside the country.

Iraq was swept by a wave of kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in 2004 and early 2005, but such attacks have dropped off in recent months as many Western groups have left and security precautions for those who remain have tightened. Insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq, have seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38 -- including three Americans.

The last American to be kidnapped was Jeffrey Ake, a contract worker from LaPorte, Ind., who was abducted April 11. He was seen in a video aired days afterward, held with a gun to his head, but there has been no word on his fate since.

It was unclear whether the recent kidnappings were the work of a single group or simply coincidental. However, police believed they may be part of an insurgent campaign to discredit the government and disrupt the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

"Terrorists will try to destabilize the situation during the election period" in order to discourage people from voting, police Maj. Falah Mohammedawi said. "They will try to do this through kidnappings, assassinations and threats to citizens. We have our complete security plan to confront this."

Sheik Hamza Abbas, the Sunni cleric who was assassinated Tuesday, had made contacts with the Americans during the siege of Fallujah last year and had been denounced as a collaborator, residents said. Later, he severed contacts with the Americans.

Abbas, head of the Religious Scholars Council in Fallujah and the mufti of Anbar province, died when two gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons as he was leaving a mosque, his brother Dr. Ahmed Abbas said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope a big turnout in the December election will undermine the insurgency and improve chances for the United States and its partners to begin reducing troop levels in Iraq next year.

To do that, the U.S.-led coalition needs to accelerate the training of an Iraqi army and police force to assume greater security responsibility.

President Bush said he would make decisions about troop levels based on the advice of military commanders.

"If they tell me the Iraqis are ready to take more and more responsibility and that we'll be able to bring some Americans home, I will do that," the president told reporters in Texas. "It's their recommendation."


Associated Press reporters David Rising in Berlin, Michael Tarm in Chicago and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.


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Christian Peacemaker Teams: http://www.cpt.org

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