Abu Qatada appeals for release of hostages

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One of Britain's most notorious Islamic extremists has appealed for the release of Norman Kember, the British peace activist held hostage in Baghdad, calling on "brothers" to show mercy.

Abu Qatada - described by the Government as Osama bin Laden's European ambassador and an inspiration to the leader of the September 11 hijackers - made his appeal from his cell at Full Sutton maximum security jail, near York. Officials said the request to make an appeal came from Abu Qatada himself through his lawyer Gareth Peirce. The Prison Service gave permission and the filming was done internally, rather than by an outside media organisation.

Abu Qatada is awaiting possible deportation to Jordan as a threat to national security.

The broadcast is liable to provoke considerable controversy. Last night, the Government categorically denied that any deal had been done with the prisoner.

The tape, in which the 44-year-old cleric appeals to the Swords of Righteousness Brigade - the group holding the hostages - was distributed to satellite news stations across the Middle East.

The group last night extended by 48 hours the deadline they had set to kill Mr Kember along with two Canadians and an American. They are demanding the release of all prisoners in US and Iraqi custody by Saturday, al-Jazeera reported.

"I urge them to release the four prisoners in Iraq. This is a merciful act according to the principles of Islam," said Abu Qatada.

Abu Qatada - whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman - was described by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission as "a truly dangerous individual" and a key figure in al-Qa'ida-related activities. He has been convicted in his absence in Jordan of involvement with terror attacks in 1998 and of plotting to plant bombs to coincide with the millennium.

Mr Kember, 74, from Pinner, north-west London, was seized on 26 November with James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both Canadians, and an American, Tom Fox, 54.