BAGHDAD, Iraq — An Iraqi militant group beheaded its South Korean hostage, officials said today, just hours after a go-between said the execution had been delayed and there were negotiations for the man’s release.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement confirming that Kim Sun-il had been killed but did not say he was beheaded.
However, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy operations chief, said the body of an Asian male was found west of Baghdad on Tuesday evening.
“It appears that the body had been thrown from a vehicle,” Kimmitt said in a statement. “The man had been beheaded, and the head was recovered with the body.”
Kim’s body was found by the U.S. military between Baghdad and Fallujah, 22 miles west of the capital, at 5:20 p.m. Iraq time, said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil.
After news of Kim’s death broke, South Korean television showed Kim’s distraught family members weeping and rocking back and forth with grief at their home in the southeastern port city of Busan.
“I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die,” Kim pleaded in a first video released by his captors Sunday as he begged his government to end its involvement in Iraq.
The South Korean embassy in Baghdad confirmed that the body was Kim’s by studying a picture of the remains it received by e-mail, Shin said.
“It breaks our heart that we have to announce this unfortunate news,” Shin said.
Kim, 33, worked for Gana General Trading Co., a South Korean company supplying the U.S. military in Iraq. He was abducted last week, according to the South Korean government
The videotape of Kim, apparently made shortly before his death, showed him kneeling, blindfolded and wearing an orange jumpsuit similar to those issued to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Five hooded men stood behind Kim, one reading a statement and gesturing with his right hand. Another captor had a big knife slipped in his belt.
One of the masked men said the message was intended for the Korean people. “This is what your hands have committed. Your army has not come here for the sake of Iraqis, but for cursed America.”
The video as broadcast did not show Kim being executed.
Al-Jazeera said the video claimed the execution was carried out by the al-Qaida-linked group Monotheism and Jihad.
President Bush condemned the beheading of a South Korean hostage as “barbaric” Tuesday and said he remained confident that South Korea would go ahead with plans to send thousands of troops to Iraq.
“The free world cannot be intimidated by the brutal actions of these barbaric people,” the president said.
The grisly killing was reminiscent of the decapitation of American businessman Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded last month on a videotape posted on an Al-Qaida-linked Web site by the same group, which claimed responsibility for Kim’s death.
In Saudi Arabia, American helicopter technician Paul M. Johnson Jr., 49, was kidnapped by al-Qaida militants who followed through on a threat to kill him if the kingdom did not release its al-Qaida prisoners. An al-Qaida group claiming responsibility posted an Internet message that showed photographs of Johnson’s severed head.
Al-Jazeera did not say when Kim was killed.
Kim’s kidnappers had initially threatened to kill him at sundown Monday unless South Korea canceled a troop deployment to Iraq. The Seoul government rejected the demand, standing firm with plans to dispatch 3,000 soldiers starting in August.
Kim Chun-ho, president of Gana General Trading, the company that employed the victim, were traveling to the site to collect the remains, Shin said.
South Korea convened its National Security Council at 2 a.m. to discuss the government’s reaction, Shin said. Later, the government reaffirmed it would send troops to Iraq as planned, but ordered all its nonessential civilians to leave Iraq as soon as possible.
NKTS, a South Korean security firm doing business in Iraq, told the AP in Baghdad earlier Tuesday that Kim was still alive and that negotiations for his release continued, with the company president expected to arrive in Baghdad from Seoul by Wednesday.
In a dispatch from Baghdad, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an “informed source” as saying that negotiations with the kidnappers collapsed over the South Korean government’s refusal to drop its plan to send troops.
“As a condition for starting negotiations for Kim’s release, the kidnappers demanded that South Korea announce that it would retract its troop dispatch plan,” the source was quoted as saying. “This was a condition the South Korean government could not accept. As the talks bogged down, the kidnappers apparently resorted to an extreme measure.”
Also Tuesday, gunmen opened fire on a U.S. military convoy north of the capital, killing two American soldiers and wounding a third, the military said.
The convoy was attacked by small arms fire at 12:45 p.m. near Balad, 50 miles from Baghdad, the military said in a statement.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, said they would hand legal custody of Saddam Hussein and an undetermined number of former regime figures to the interim government as soon as Iraqi courts issue warrants for their arrest and request the transfer.
However, the United States will retain physical custody of Saddam and the prisoners, while giving Iraqi prosecutors and defense lawyers access to them, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A car bomb exploded in a Baghdad residential neighborhood near the international airport Tuesday, killing three people, including a 3-year-old girl, and wounding six other Iraqis, said Maj. Phil Smith, a U.S. military spokesman.
U.S. troops sealed off the area after the late afternoon explosion, but neither American nor Iraqi security forces were in the area at the time of the blast, witnesses said. Three cars were burned and several shops were damaged in the Amiriya neighborhood.
On Monday, a mortar attack in Baghdad and two assaults on U.S. forces northeast of the capital killed one soldier and wounded nine others, the military said, as militants showed no sign of easing their attacks ahead of next week’s transfer of sovereignty.
The recent abductions and attacks appear aimed at undermining the interim Iraqi government set to take power June 30, when the U.S.-led occupation formally ends.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said that by week’s end, all Iraqi government ministries would be under full Iraqi control.
The coalition official who briefed reporters about the prisoner custody issue said the Americans will keep Saddam and others under U.S. guard even after the June 30 handover because the Iraqi government does not yet have capacity to hold such prisoners, the official said.
U.S. troops captured Saddam in December near his hometown of Tikrit.
A mortar attack Monday in Baghdad and two assaults on U.S. forces northeast of the capital killed one soldier and wounded nine others, the military said, as militants showed no sign of easing their attacks ahead of next week’s transfer of sovereignty.
Elsewhere, five Iraqi contractors were killed Monday in an ambush on their three-vehicle convoy 30 miles south of Mosul. The U.S. command said two others were wounded.
U.S. authorities Tuesday released three busloads of prisoners from the notorious Abu Ghraib detention center, bringing the total number set free in the last two months to more than 2,000. The prison is at the center of a scandal over abuse of inmates by U.S. troops.