Blair's efforts are putting hostage in danger, say aid staff

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The Independent Online

Iraqi colleagues of the kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan are deeply worried that Tony Blair's repeated pledges to save her may be putting her life in more danger.

Care International suspended its aid operations in Iraq yesterday, after Mrs Hassan, who is director of the charity in Iraq, was abducted on her way to work on Tuesday.

Care officials in Baghdad say they and others working for the charity have been striving to show that Mrs Hassan considers herself an Iraqi.

Mr Blair told the Commons that everyone was thinking of the aid worker, who has lived in Iraq for more than 30 years. "She is immensely respected, married to an Iraqi and worked tirelessly to help the country," he said at Prime Minister's Questions. "We are doing what we can to secure her release."

But the officials told The Independent that they believed highlighting the involvement of a government that took part in the invasion of Iraq would make her much more vulnerable to her captors.

"There is a lot of unhappiness here among people in Care about what is being said in London," said an official who gave only his first name, Musab. "We feel that all this talk about the British Government getting involved will send bad signals to the people holding her. This makes the whole thing political ... This is not helpful and it could hurt her."

Mrs Hassan, who is believed to be in her 60s, holds Iraqi nationality. Care International in London stressed that she had lived in Iraq for 32 years, was married to an Iraqi and had not contemplated living in Britain.

Her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, appealing to the abductors to free his wife, also urged them to consider her bonds with Iraq. "I would like to tell the kidnappers that we are in the holy month of Ramadan and my wife has been helping Iraq for 30 years and loved this country," he said. "In the name of humanity, Islam and brotherhood, I appeal to the kidnappers to free her because she has nothing to do with politics."

Mr Hassan said the abductors had not made any demands, and that the fate of his wife was not known. The al-Jazeera television station broadcast footage on Tuesday showing the hostage with her hands bound behind her back. The videotape was delivered by a group claiming to be her kidnappers.

Mr Hassan, a retired economist and businessman, described how the kidnappers had posed as policemen. "It happened at about 7.20am. She was in a car being driven. There was a guard, but he wasn't carrying any weapons. Two cars blocked her path and people in police uniform asked her to get out and speak to them. I am told she did that, suspecting nothing. Then other gunmen appeared, and she was grabbed. They started firing in the air to stop anyone from helping."

The gunmen beat the driver, and the guard, Mr Hassan said. "Margaret told them to stop hurting them. She said it was her that they were after and she would go with them. She was taken into the car and that is the last time she was seen until they produced the video.

"I had warned her when all these kidnappings started. But she did not seem very worried because she considered herself an Iraqi, and, of course, she was so busy with so many projects."

Mrs Hassan was born in Dublin and holds Irish nationality as well as Iraqi and British. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, said yesterday: "It is very important that it is known she is Irish. That may not have been known." The Irish government, which opposed the invasion of Iraq, said it was working hard to try to secure Mrs Hassan's release.

* The third American soldier to face court martial over the abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad, pleaded guilty yesterday to abusing prisoners. Staff Sgt Ivan Frederick is expected to be sentenced today at a Baghdad military base.

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