Kidnapped marine free, family told

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The family of a Lebanese-American Marine kidnapped in Iraq said yesterday that a mysterious visitor had told them Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun is free and well.

The family of a Lebanese-American Marine kidnapped in Iraq said yesterday that a mysterious visitor had told them Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun is free and well.

Hours later, a Lebanese government official said the kidnappers released Cpl Hassoun after he pledged he would not return to the US military. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cpl Hassoun's whereabouts were unknown.

The two statements were positive signals for Cpl Hassoun's relatives in Lebanon and the United States, but they have seen their hopes rise and plummet since he went missing on 20 June while serving as a translator for the US Marines in Iraq.

Cpl Hassoun's brother in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli said yesterday that he was confident his brother was free, although he had not spoken to him. "We have received reliable information the guy is free," Sami Hassoun said. "We received a sign from my brother reassuring us." Sami Hassoun would not reveal the sign, but he said the family had received credible information from a person he did not identify who came to their Tripoli home. The person did not say where the Marine was.

Foreign Ministry officials in Beirut said that Lebanese diplomats in Iraq had told them Cpl Hassoun was still alive. They gave no further details.

On Saturday, a militant group calling itself the Ansar al-Sunna Army claimed on a website that it had beheaded the 24-year-old Marine, adding it would release a video to prove it. But in a statement posted on another website on Sunday, the group said it did not issue the execution statement.

On Monday, a group calling itself Islamic Response told al-Jazeera television that Cpl Hassoun was safe at an undisclosed location. It claimed that he had promised not to return to the American military.

The US military said Cpl Hassoun had been absent without authorisation since 20 June. After a video showing him blindfolded and apparently in the hands of militants was broadcast on 27 June, the military changed his status to "captured".

The New York Times, citing a Marine officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported Cpl Hassoun had been traumatised after seeing one of his sergeants killed by a mortar bomb and was trying to make his way back to Lebanon. The officer told the paper Cpl Hassoun had sought the help of Iraqis at his military base, but was betrayed and handed over to extremists.

Cpl Hassoun's eldest brother, Mohammad, who lives in a Salt Lake City suburb, has denied the Times report. There were no signs of activity yesterday at the Hassouns' home in West Jordan, Utah. The blinds of the house were drawn, and about 30 American flags and a Marine flag were planted in the lawn. "We pray that the news of his safe release is true," a family spokesman Tarek Nosseir had said on Monday.

"If he is still in captivity, we remind the captors of the saying of our beloved Prophet: 'Be merciful to those on earth, mercy will descend upon you from heaven'." Cpl Hassoun went to American schools in Lebanon before moving to the Salt Lake City area. He was serving his second stint in Iraq.

His father, Ali Hassoun, who lives in Tripoli, has repeatedly pleaded for his release.

¿ At least six people were killed and 35 wounded when a car bomb exploded at a funeral in Iraq yesterday. A witness said a suicide bomber drove into a group of mourners and his car exploded in al-Khalis, a town 50 miles north of Baghdad.