Iraq kidnap: Forgotten hostages back in spotlight

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"My name is Jason. Today is November 18... I have been here now for 173 days and I feel we have been forgotten." Those words, from a haggard-looking hostage paraded in a video by his Iraqi kidnappers which was broadcast last week, were the first public indication that five Britons kidnapped in Baghdad more than six months ago are still alive.

In contrast to the high-profile campaign to free the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, kidnapped in Gaza earlier this year, there has been almost total silence about the five seized in Iraq a computer consultant for the US company BearingPoint and four security men from Canadian-owned GardaWorld. Their names have been withheld at the Foreign Office's request, and no details of any negotiations have emerged. But almost every aspect of the case has been mysterious, from the moment when a convoy carrying up to 40 men, some in the camouflage uniforms of special police commandos, drove through the gate of the Iraqi finance ministry. They headed straight to where the Britons were working, and took them away. That was on 29 May, but expectations that the kidnappers would quickly capitalise on their brazen exploit proved wrong. There were no public demands until last week.

Even the threat contained in the belated message from the hostage-takers that one of their captives would be killed if British troops did not leave Iraq within 10 days was confusing. If the deadline was from the date the video was recorded, it had already passed before al-Arabiya television broadcast the tape. If it runs from the latter date, it expires this Friday. Either way, the kidnappers must know there is no chance of their demand being met.

"Why now?" was the response from one figure in the private security industry who did not want to be named. "In May British troops were still active in southern Iraq but they have since withdrawn from Basra city, and their numbers are reducing sharply. It doesn't make sense." While the kidnappers and murderers of previous British hostages such as Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan have been Sunnis, the perpetrators this time are assumed to be Shia. In June, General David Petraeus, US commander in Iraq, blamed a secret cell of the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But the militia has denied the claim, leading some to suspect a breakaway group.

In September, the families of the five hostages broke their silence, urging the kidnappers to end the "torment" of "ordinary family men". The video appeared to indicate that the message had not reached the Britons, but last week the Foreign Office issued another statement from their families and friends. "We love you and miss you very much," it said. "We want you to know that in the six months since you were taken, we have not once forgotten you."

What is happening behind the scenes remains hidden, for good reasons. But the statement continued: "We want you to know that we continue to do everything we can, through all the channels available to us, to work towards your safe release."