Shortly after 10.30am yesterday, a convoy of black limousines from Iraq's Interior Ministry swept into the grounds of the British embassy in Baghdad. When the doors of one of the armour-plated cars opened, the reason for the dramatic arrival became clear: inside sat Peter Moore, the IT consultant from Lincoln who had found himself at the heart of the longest-running hostage crisis involving Britons for 18 years.
The release of Mr Moore, 36, after 31 months, was so sudden that staff at the embassy in the Iraqi capital's fortress-like green zone had known nothing of the development when they went to bed the previous night.
Dressed in clean clothes and sporting a full beard, Mr Moore betrayed no immediate evidence of the emotional scars inflicted by his ordeal at the hands of the Shia militiamen who abducted him. His first request to British officials was to be allowed to have a meal in the embassy canteen.
After more than two-and-a-half years of captivity, the sudden and happy conclusion to a kidnapping episode steeped in the blood of at least three, and almost certainly four, people was in stark contrast to the long periods of silence, frustration and dashed hopes that had defined the experience of the families waiting for news of progress in the behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Even as he was led to his freedom, Mr Moore told his family yesterday that he assumed he was being taken outside "for a bullet in the head" rather than release into the hands of Iraqi officials.
His mother, Avril Sweeney, said: "I think I was drying my hair when the phone rang. It was my family liaison officer who said, 'I've got something to tell you, Peter's been released.'
"It was a bolt out of the blue, a complete and wonderful shock. Until today there's always been a thought at the back of my mind that we'd get bad news, but against that I knew that Peter has a very strong personality.
"I always said that if anyone gets out of this alive it will be Peter, and he has."
On the morning of 29 May 2007, some 40 men, most in police camouflage uniforms, had sealed off the street leading to the Iraqi Finance Ministry building where Mr Moore was working as a contractor for the US management consultancy BearingPoint.
Faced with such overwhelming force, the British security guards who were with him – Jason Swindlehurst, Jason Creswell, Alec MacLachlan and Alan McMenemy – had no choice other than to surrender. The convoy of police vehicles drove out of the cordon on Palestine Street and negotiated another checkpoint to enter the Shia stronghold of Sadr City.
It was suggested that split loyalties and corruption within the Iraqi police had secured the prize of five Britons ready to be used as bargaining chips in a game of brinkmanship involving the US, Iraq's unsteady government, Iranian-backed insurgents and Britain, Washington's closest ally.
Initially, the British response was muscular. While the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, publicly insisted that the Government was doing "all it can" to secure the men's release, a joint British, American and Canadian task force of special forces troops was carrying out a series of raids to forcibly take back the hostages. On at least two occasions, an SAS unit arrived at locations in Baghdad just hours after the Britons had been moved, leading to renewed concerns that details of the raids had been leaked by Iraqi security forces.
It became clear in London that only a negotiated settlement could secure the release of some or any of the men.
Initially naming themselves as the Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq, the hostage-takers were not allied to the dominant militia, the Mehdi Army of the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Instead, Western officials believe that the group, which calls itself Asaib al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, was funded by the Iranian regime and had been responsible for attacks on UK and US troops.
For the families of the hostages, a British decision to accede to the hostage-takers' request for a publicity blackout heightened concerns that their loved ones' plight was being kept out of the public eye in a way that did not happen during the kidnappings of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan two decades earlier.
Instead, a series of video recordings broke the silence, bringing increasing threats and tragic news about the fate of the increasingly ill-looking hostages. On 20 July 2008, a recording was released saying that one of the hostages had killed himself and blaming the "procrastination and foot-dragging and lack of seriousness on the part of the British Government" for the death. The tape also showed Mr McMenemy discussing his plight. He said: "Physically, I'm not doing well. Psychologically, I'm doing a lot worse." In another video, Mr Moore, who had only taken his job in Iraq to pay off a student loan after years of voluntary work abroad on £140 a month, was heard to say: "I just want to get out of here. Nothing is happening."
Graeme Moore, Peter's father, echoed the concerns of many relatives when it emerged in July this year that the guards had been executed and the bodies of three of them handed over. He said: "There has been huge mishandling of the matter. We had been asked to keep quiet and let them handle the situation and the result is that four of the men are dead."
Avril Sweeney added yesterday that there were "a lot of questions" regarding the political manoeuvrings behind the scene in the lead-up to her son's release, but she said that now was not the appropriate time to comment.
Last week, Mrs Sweeney revealed that she had written a heartfelt message to her son in which she prayed for his freedom. In the letter, which now she does not need to send, she wrote: "If I were asked what I wanted, it would be to exchange places with you in order for you to have your best present ever – your freedom."
Ahead of his return to Britain – expected by this weekend – an expert in the recovery of released hostages said that returning to normal life can be a lengthy and traumatic process. Lesley Perman-Kerr, a psychologist, said: "What is important is that the mind is allowed the time and space to heal in its own way. Most people will eventually recover well, but you don't ever forget something like this."
Still missing: 'I have to believe Alan is alive'
Amid yesterday's celebrations, sadness and uncertainty remained for the family of the last of the five British captives, whose fate is still unknown.
Alan McMenemy, 34, who was one of the four security contractors given the task of ensuring Peter Moore's safety, was reported by informed sources earlier this year to have been executed by the group's captors. In July, Gordon Brown said it was "very likely" that the Glaswegian father-of-two was dead. But unlike the grieving relatives of the three other contractors, who were murdered by the hostage-takers, the family of Mr McMenemy have not even had the solace of being able to bury a body.
Speaking shortly before Christmas, the wife of Mr McMenemy said she could not allow herself to believe that her husband was dead. Rosalyn McMenemy said: "My son Luke did ask Santa to bring his daddy home for Christmas. I think I have to believe that [Alan is still alive]. I think it would be too difficult to think of anything else at the moment."
Despite the decision by the hostage-takers to release the bodies of three of the four security guards, pleas to return the remains of Mr McMenemy have so far fallen on deaf ears.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said: "I am very conscious that the joy and relief felt by Peter's family will be mirrored by the continuing anguish of the family of Alan McMenemy. We have believed for some time that he has been killed and his immediate family have been told our view of his likely fate."
He added: "I call again today on the hostage-takers to return Alan's body as soon as possible."
May 2007 Peter Moore snatched along with four British bodyguards in a raid on Iraq's finance ministry.
June 2009 Shia leader Laith al-Khazali transferred from US to Iraqi custody. Hopes rise. But days later remains of Jason Creswell and Jason Swindlehurst, passed to UK.
September 2009 Iraqi authorities receive body of Alec MacLachlan.
December 2009 Moore freed.