But with the freeing of Paul Ride, Michael Wainwright and Simon Dunn hoped for by the weekend, there was no clear indication of the details of the deal. All diplomats would say was that Saddam Hussein was seeking to 'improve his image' as part of efforts to have sanctions eased against Iraq.
But as the prisoners' relatives prepared to fly out to the Middle East, they said they had heard through official channels that the release was imminent. 'We are so excited, but we hardly dare believe it in case something goes wrong at the last minute,' said Susan Priestley, Mr Wainright's sister.
The former British prime minister, who was due to meet Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister, has been holding secret talks with the Iraqis as an intermediary of the Foreign Office - although he is described officially as acting on behalf of the prisoners' families. 'We've been talking to Heath all along,' said one British diplomat. 'But it was only on Monday morning that we got the green light for him to go out there.' He said Sir Edward had been in telephone contact with Mr Aziz throughout last weekend
Mr Ride, 33, and Mr Wainwright, 42, were jailed last year for seven and 10 years respectively for 'entering Iraq illegally'. Mr Dunn, 23, was arrested in June and given eight years for the same offence.
Iraq, which is holding prisoners of some 30 nationalities, last month released an American jailed for illegal entry. It is also holding a Frenchman and a German on the same charges.
Ms Priestley said: 'We have heard that if everything goes all right then Michael should be back in the UK by Friday.'
In 1990 Sir Edward negotiated the release of British nationals used as 'human shields'. His current mission comes after a refusal by Britain to send a cabinet-level envoy as originally demanded by President Saddam.
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