Tuesday, November 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — Al Jazeera television yesterday aired a video of four aid workers kidnapped over the weekend, apparently being held by a previously unknown terrorist group called the “Swords of Righteousness.”

The four — two Canadians, an American and a Briton, members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) — sat with their backs against a wall, and looked calm.

A taped statement by the terrorists accused the four of being “spies of the occupying forces.” Previous hostages charged with being spies have been beheaded or shot.

The abductions of the four, plus a German woman kidnapped on Friday, is driving up fears that insurgents are expanding their terror campaign to the civilian expatriate population in Iraq in the weeks leading up to the Dec. 15 national elections.

“There certainly have been messages, threats that have come out” as the country takes its next political steps forward, said a Western diplomat on the condition of anonymity. “There are many enemies of this who want to do anything that would destabilize what appears to be some forward movement toward some kind of democracy,” the diplomat said.

In addition, six Iranian pilgrims also were kidnapped, but two women in the group were released shortly afterward.

Christian Peacemaker Teams, an anti-violence group, confirmed yesterday that four of its human rights workers went missing in Baghdad on 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 Mr. Kember’s passport.

Christian Peacemaker Teams identified the other hostages as Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; James Loney, 41, of Toronto; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a Canadian electrical engineer, according to the Associated Press. Clearbrook is a suburb of Roanoke.

The CPT, based in the U.S. and Canada, blamed the occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces for the kidnappings, Agence France-Presse reported.

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

The long-time CPT members had stated that they were “aware of the many risks both Iraqis and internationals currently face” in the nation, according to a message posted on the organization’s Web site.

The CPT also said it did “not advocate the use of violent force to save lives of its workers should they be kidnapped, held hostage or caught in the middle of a conflict situation.”

Germany’s ARD television and Iraqi Al Iraqiya television carried pictures of a blindfolded woman being held by someone with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Two other men had automatic rifles. One read a statement demanding that Germany stop dealing with the Iraqi government.

The German woman, Susan Osthoff, is an archeologist who had spent considerable time in Iraq and is a fluent Arabic speaker. Mrs. Osthoff’s mother, Ingrid Hala, told Germany N24 news station that her daughter is working for a German aid organization that has distributed medicine and medical supplies in Iraq since before the 2003 U.S. invasion. German television reported that Mrs. Osthoff has had no contact with her family in Germany for five years, including a daughter who is 11.

In October 2004, Margaret Hassan, an aid worker with British and Iraqi dual citizenship and decades of experience helping Iraq, was kidnapped. She was executed by a shot to the head a few weeks later.

Embassies in Baghdad have set up special hostage-rescue teams to deal with the crises. In 2004 and early 2005, more than 220 foreigners — including aid workers, contractors and journalists — were kidnapped in Iraq, and 38 were killed.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the embassy was in contact with the family of the U.S. national and was providing all possible assistance in order to release the American.

“We are monitoring the hostage situation in general of U.S. and other nationals, as we are working with the Iraqi authorities as well as with other embassies,” the spokesman said.

Since the last spate of kidnapping and brutal killings, many nongovernmental organizations left the country. Others, including contractors and press, have stayed under a heavy security umbrella, living in walled compounds or guarded and barricaded hotels.

Insurgents and criminal groups regularly kidnap Iraqis, from small children to adults, demanding large sums of money for their release.

Expatriate hostages are not always taken just for ransom — terrorist groups also exploit them for political purposes, demanding that coalition troops leave the country or risk having their nationals slaughtered.

“Often there is not a distinction. Some are purely political, but the vast majority of kidnappings here are for ransom,” said the Western official, adding that there was no indication if the latest hostage-takings were for money.

Most civilian expatriate companies cannot count on the military for protection, so they hire armed professional security guards to take care of their workers. Many drive around the city and country in convoys of armored cars.

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