Key questions remain unanswered over Hassan and Khalifa kidnappings

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A Polish woman taken hostage in Iraq turned up at a news conference in Warsaw yesterday, saying she had been treated well but refusing to give any further details about her captivity or how she was freed.

A Polish woman taken hostage in Iraq turned up at a news conference in Warsaw yesterday, saying she had been treated well but refusing to give any further details about her captivity or how she was freed.

The release of Teresa Borcz Khalifa added to the mystery surrounding the fate of Margaret Hassan, who appears to have been executed by her captors. Yesterday, there was more confusion over whether a body found in Fallujah was hers, and there are still large numbers of people, including Iraqi officials in Baghdad, who cling to the absence of conclusive proof that she has been killed.

There were marked similarities between the cases of Mrs Hassan and Mrs Khalifa. Both were of a similar age, in their 50s, and had lived in Iraq for a long time. Both were married to Iraqis, and had acquired Iraqi citizenship while keeping that of their home countries.

However, the kidnapping of Mrs Hassan, the country director for the charity Care International, caused wide- spread protests, including public demonstrations, unlike Mrs Khalifa's abduction. Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group has beheaded a number of hostages, called for Mrs Hassan to be released.

Confusion was heightened when the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, first told MPs in Canberra that a mutilated body found in Fallujah was that of Margaret Hassan, then retracted his claim. The body was taken to Jordan for forensic tests, but senior diplomats have disclosed that it does not appear to be that of the aid worker. No sooner was that information absorbed, however, than military sources said the body of a second woman, also possibly Western, might have been found in the town by US Marines.

Assumptions about Mrs Hassan's fate are based on a videotape received by the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera. It showed the footage in which a woman said to be the British hostage was shot in the head to British diplomats in Qatar. The Foreign Office decided, after analysing the sequence, that it did indeed show a killing. However, the victim's face was obscured by a blindfold, and she could not be identified with certainty.

The kidnapping itself has been puzzling, because it does not fall into the pattern of the hundreds of abductions, either commercially or politically motivated, in Iraq. Even among the estimated 170 foreigners to have been seized, the case of Margaret Hassan stands out.

No demands were made by the kidnappers since an early video in which Mrs Hassan asked Tony Blair to pull British troops out of Iraq. No group has ever claimed responsibility. And, unlike other women hostages, Mrs Hassan was filmed without an Islamic headscarf.

Like the Care director, Mrs Khalifa was shown on al-Jazeera, pleading for her country to withdraw its troops from Iraq. In both cases the kidnappers' demand was rejected. Yet while Poland refused to pull out its 2,400 soldiers, Mrs Khalifa was released.

All that Marek Belka, the Polish Prime Minister, would say yesterday was that "officials of different services took part in her release in co-operation with institutions from many countries. I can't give you any details about the circumstances of this event, for two reasons. First, because of security concerns for our people ... and also because our partners expressed a firm wish not to reveal any details of the release operation."

The obsessive attention paid to the fate of Western hostages in their home countries obscures the fact that such kidnappings are untypical even of the kidnapping of foreigners. Most non-Iraqis who have been seized were not Westerners, but citizens of poorer countries who had come to work as sub-contractors, either for the coalition forces or companies engaged in reconstruction. Turkish truck drivers and Pakistani cleaners are among those who have been abducted and murdered; sometimes, as in the case of nine Nepalese hostages killed in August, even their names are unknown.

But foreign hostages are far outnumbered by Iraqi victims of the kidnappers. Hundreds, if not thousands, have been seized for ransom, driving middle-class Iraqis to leave the country in droves, yet the phenomenon has gone virtually unreported abroad. Only the other category receives attention - the increasing number of Iraqi police and national guardsmen taken prisoner and, as often as not, killed out of hand almost immediately.

The only kidnapping reported in the past seven days was of 31 police recruits in Rutba, near the Jordanian border. The details remain disputed, and the incident would probably have been ignored abroad were it not for the number seized.

Even beheading, the grisliest method employed by the killers, is becoming more commonplace. American forces fighting to regain control of Mosul yesterday reported finding four headless bodies, all of local people, demonstrating once again that Iraqis are suffering most in the aftermath of war.

Additional reporting by Cub Barrett