British peace activist visits Iraq to plead for hostage

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The Independent Online

A leading member of the British anti-war movement arrived in Iraq yesterday to seek the release of Norman Kember, the 74-year-old Christian peace activist kidnapped last weekend.

Anas Altikriti, who is representing the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), Stop the War and CND, will have talks with influential Sunni organisations to try to convince the hostage-takers that Mr Kember should never have been seized.

He and the three men kidnapped with him ­ American Tom Fox, 54, and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32 ­ were shown in a new video, in which their captors, the previously unknown Swords of Righteousness Brigade, threatened to kill them unless Iraqi prisoners were released by Thursday.

Mr Altikriti "will try to explain that by holding Mr Kember, they are doing a great injustice", a MAB spokesman said. "If they continue holding him, or carry out their threats, it will be very damaging for the insurgency because people will see that this is the very person who campaigned against the occupation of Iraq, and for freedom and democracy. Norman Kember is a true friend of Iraq and there is no justice in holding him."

Mr Kember's captors have claimed that he and the other three hostages are "spies of the occupying forces", an allegation dismissed by his family and friends. Members of his local Baptist church gathered yesterday, heads bowed, around a single flickering candle to pray for him, stunned by the release of the new video in which his kidnappers set a deadline for his threatened execution.

The retired professor of physics and lifelong pacifist attends the church at least twice a week, is editor of the church magazine, and secretary of its Sunday school. At the Kember family home in Pinner, Middlesex, Pat, his wife, was being comforted yesterday by friends and family, including her daughters, Jo and Sally.

The Foreign Office has asked the family to say nothing to the media. A spokesman said the department was hopeful that Mr Kember and the other hostages would be released unharmed. He and his captured colleagues are members of the Christian Peacemakers Team, one of the last aid organisations left in Iraq.

n A British general may be charged over alleged attempts to prevent an investigation into the deaths of Sergeant Stephen Roberts, a tank commander, and an unarmed Iraqi civilian, Zahir Zabati, on 24 March 2003. Major-General Peter Wall has been interviewed by the Met.

Two soldiers from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment face murder charges following the death of Mr Zabati while another soldier from the same regiment faces manslaughter charges. An investigation found that Sgt Roberts may have been killed by one of his own men. His death caused public outrage when it emerged that he had no body armour.