Polish hostage held in Iraq is released unharmed

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The Independent Online

Teresa Borcz Khalifa, a Polish woman kidnapped last month in Iraq, dramatically appeared at a press conference in Warsaw yesterday, but gave few details of her captivity or how she had been freed.

"I don't know how it happened because I was blindfolded all the time ... It was a very happy moment," said a smiling Mrs Khalifa, who was brought into the room with her mother. "I think I will stay in Poland for the time being. I was held in good conditions and treated well, and that gave me hope that I'd be freed."

Like the British-born Margaret Hassan, presumed murdered by her captors, the Polish hostage was a long-term resident of Iraq and had married an Iraqi. It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid.

The Polish Prime Minister, Marek Belka, said Mrs Khalifa had been brought to Poland on Friday evening, and that her release had involved "several government agencies and services in co-operation with institutions from other countries". He declined to reveal any details, for security reasons.

The hostage's release was rare good news on another day of violence in Iraq, including a wave of daylight attacks in Baghdad. A US soldier was killed and nine wounded in an ambush on a patrol, while three Iraqi policemen died in an attack on a police station for which the al-Qa'ida ally, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility.

The assault, in the capital's Aadhamiya district, set off a three-hour battle with the insurgents during which US tanks and helicopters were called in. The previous day the Iraqi National Guard raided the nearby Abu Hanifa mosque, a Sunni Muslim shrine, at the end of Friday prayers, enraging worshippers and triggering clashes that left four dead.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has insisted that the US and Britain are not obliged to keep a count of how many people have been killed in Iraq since the end of the war. But while he has no figures of his own to offer, he was certain that the estimate of 100,000 published recently in the medical journal The Lancet is wrong.

He also rejected the claim made in The Lancet that the coalition forces operating in Iraq were obliged under article 27 of the fourth Geneva Convention to give a reckoning of how many civilians they had killed.

Mr Straw added: "In many cases it would be impossible to make a reliably accurate assessment either of the civilian casualties resulting from any particular attacks or of the overall civilian casualties of a conflict. This is particularly true in the conditions that exist in Iraq."

He also repudiated claims on the website www.iraqbodycount.org, which keeps a running estimate of the dead, and has suggested that between 14,284 and 16,419 civilian deaths have occurred since the war officially ended in March 2003. The Government does not regard this tally as reliable "because it relies on media reports," he said. The only figures Mr Straw thinks should be taken seriously are those issued by the Iraqi Minister of Health, based on reports from hospitals. It estimates that in six months from April to October this year, 3,853 civilians were killed - implying that the total since the end of the war could be below 12,000.

In a written statement to the Commons Mr Straw accused The Lancet of attributing an "astonishingly small" proportion of violent deaths to insurgents fighting the coalition forces. He suggested that some of the grieving relatives interviewed for the study may have been too frightened to say that their loved ones had been killed by insurgents.

The Lancet's researchers based their estimate on a study of 142 deaths that took place after the war, comparing them with 46 deaths over a similar length of time before the war. They concluded 73 people had died through violence, and that 61 of these had been killed by the coalition forces.

The Lancet's study, published last month, warned, however, that conditions in Iraq made accurate data difficult to obtain. It said the number of excess deaths could be anywhere from 8,000 to 194,000, but that 98,000 was the most likely total.

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