Five 'confess' to murder of aid worker

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Iraqi and US forces claimthey have arrested 11 men suspected of being linked to the kidnap and murder of the aid worker Margaret Hassan.

Iraqi and US forces claimthey have arrested 11 men suspected of being linked to the kidnap and murder of the aid worker Margaret Hassan.

The arrests came on another day of violence in Iraq, which saw suicide bombers kill at least 15 people at a Kurdish funeral in the northern town of Talafar. And in a chilling echo of the Hassan case, Islamic militants released a video apparently showing an Australian hostage, Douglas Wood, pleading for his life.

The kidnap of Mrs Hassan, 59, who had British, Irish and Iraqi nationality, provoked an international outcry when she was seized last October after spending yearscaring for Iraqis.

Iraqi police said that five of those arrested in a raid on a house in the southern outskirts of Baghdad had confessed to killing her.

They also said documents, a handbag and clothing apparently belonging to Mrs Hassan, whose body was never found, were recovered. But the British embassy did not confirm that the arrests were "definitively" linked to Mrs Hassan, and it could not be ruled out that the confessions were obtained using torture. According to the embassy, three people were arrested.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "The UK authorities are carrying out urgent further investigation and liaising closely with the US authorities."

Mrs Hassan was last seen in a video pleading for her life, and urging Tony Blair to withdraw troops from Iraq, one month after she was seized on her way to work on 19 October. Mrs Hassan, who was born in Ireland, had worked for Care International in Iraq since 1991, when the relief organisation began operations in the country.

Insurgents have stepped up co-ordinated attacks after last week's announcement of the formation of an Iraqi government. The attacks are a challenge to the authority of the government which emerged from the first democratic elections after three months of negotiations among the main political factions.

The political squabbling and renewed violence have brought about a return to sectarian tensions, with politicians struggling to balance the interests of Shias and Kurds, the main victors in last January's elections, and the Sunni minority which dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The video of Mr Wood, 63, showed the insignia of the Shura Council of the Mujahedin of Iraq, which has claimed attacks previously on US and Iraqi troops. The kidnapping was apparently timed to coincide with a visit by Australia's Defence Minister, Robert Hill, who announced an increase in the number of troops his country has committed to Iraq.

Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, said last night his government would not bow to the kidnappers' demands to withdraw troops from Iraq. "We can't have the foreign policy of this country dictated by terrorists," Mr Howard said.

In the video, Mr Wood, who lives in California, appeals to US, Australian and British authorities to withdraw their forces from the country. "I don't want to die," he said on the videotape, which showed him sitting on the floor flanked by two masked men armed with assault rifles.

Mr Wood said he had worked in Iraq for more than a year and "has done many jobs with the American military" although it is not clear what work he does.

With his head slumped forward and voice close to breaking, he says: "My captors are fiercely patriotic. They believe in a strong, united Iraq looking after its own destiny ... Please take the American troops, the Australian troops, the British troops out of here and let Iraq look after itself."

Three Romanians and their Iraqi-American translator were shown on al-Jazeera television last week being threatened with death unless Romanian soldiers in Iraq were withdrawn.

Police said that a series of ambushes, car bombs and shootings killed at least nine Iraqis and wounded 21 yesterday. The dead included five Iraqi policemen shot dead at a Baghdad checkpoint.

Attacks by Sunni Muslim insurgents have killed 74 people since Friday.