New video threat against life of Briton held hostage in Iraq

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The Independent Online

The kidnappers of four Western peace activists in Iraq, including the 74-year-old Briton Norman Kember, said in a video broadcast yesterday that coalition forces had one last chance to free Iraqi prisoners or they would kill the hostages.

The 55-second film, from the Swords of Truth group and dated 21 January, showed Mr Kember and his fellow hostages - American Tom Fox and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Sooden - standing against a wall in a dark room. They appeared to be speaking to the camera, but their voices could not be heard.

Mr Kember's wife, Pat, has made several televised appeals in the Middle East for her husband's release, but this was the first news about the captives since early December.

Al-Jazeera, which broadcast the tape in full, reported: "The group ... said it was giving a last chance for its demands to be met through the release of Iraqi prisoners in American and Iraqi prisons in exchange for the release of the four hostages."

The Rev Alan Betteridge, a close friend of Mr Kember, a retired professor of medical physics, told Reuters: "We are glad to have evidence that the four captives are alive, but we are very sad that the captors still repeat this threat of killing them that they issued two months ago.

"We're very sorry they're still talking in those violent terms after all the appeals from the Muslim world and others for the release of these non-violent peacemakers who were in Iraq for the benefit of justice and peace in that land."

In a message to the captors, Mr Betteridge said: "Please release these four people, who are there genuinely as non-violent peacemakers." He is president of the Baptist Peace Fellowship to which Mr Kember belongs.

The four men travelled to Iraq on behalf of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams, and were kidnapped on 26 November while trying to meet Sunni Muslim religious leaders. More than 250 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and at least 39 have been killed.

Among the hostages still unaccounted for is the American reporter Jill Carroll, 28, who was abducted on 7 January in Baghdad. Her kidnappers have demanded the release of all Iraqi women in custody. The US military said last week's release of five Iraqi women who had been in military custody was routine, and not in response to the ultimatum.