Britain backs prisoner release to free three hostages

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Urgent efforts to carry out the prisoner releases necessary to save the lives of the three remaining British hostages in Iraq were underway last night, as Gordon Brown insisted that "no stone has been left unturned" to bring the men home.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Shia Asaib Ahl al-Haq group believed to be holding the men, may be handed over to the Iraqi authorities early by the Americans in an effort to persuade the kidnappers to free IT consultant Peter Moore and two bodyguards, according to military sources.

US commanders are said to have been unhappy that al-Khazali would not face any charges for his alleged part in the killings of five Americans in Karbala two years ago. However, they are said to have accepted the need to arrive at a deal to secure the Britons.

Iraqi officials said yesterday there was nothing to suggest that either of the two hostages, Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, whose bodies were handed over to the British embassy in Baghdad, had been executed. It is believed that one of the men may have committed suicide while the other died from natural causes.

Graeme Moore, the father of Peter Moore, yesterday accused the Government of "not doing anything" to save the men. "They should have been straight in directing negotiations right from the beginning," he said.

Mr Moore, 59, from Leicestershire, added: "Unfortunately the way Gordon Brown and David Miliband have handled this case is bad news for the other two families. Miliband is a total waste of space. We will keep pushing on for Peter. We will do right until the end; until either Peter is released or we get the worst news."

The Prime Minister said the bodies of the two hostages would be returned to their family "very soon". He added: "For these families I know this is a very difficult time. After two years of waiting and the anxieties of that, they have now been given the worst possible news.

"I spoke to Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq last night and I emphasised our determination to do everything we can to secure the release of the remaining hostages. I also emphasised to him that the British Government will work with the Iraqi authorities to do everything we can until their ordeal is over.

"I just want to assure the public that every time I have been in touch with Prime Minister Maliki over these last two years, this is an issue which has been right at the top of our agenda because we wished to secure the safety of these hostages."

The mother of one of men still missing, Alec, said: "We have been told not to say anything to anybody, but I am sorry. A police officer came and told us that my son is not among the dead."

A friend of one of the two dead hostages said that the families of both men were "deeply stunned and saddened". In a statement issued on behalf of the families of all five captives, Jan Beattie, a friend of Mr Creswell, said: "We are deeply stunned and saddened by the tragic and upsetting news of the deaths of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst. We ask those still holding Alec, Alan and Peter to release them and allow them to return home to their families as soon as possible. Our grief is profound, but we remain united in our support for each other as a family group ."

Hostage negotiator Dr James Alvarez, who has experience of dealing with kidnaps in Iraq, said most kidnaps in the country are resolved within two or three months. "It's unusual for people in Iraq to be held for this long," he said. "Statistically, the longer a kidnap goes on, the higher the chances of the people coming out alive."