So close to rescue: Coalition forces 'nearly saved British hostages in Iraq'
A rescue team came came within hours of freeing five British hostages being held in Iraq during a series of raids carried out during the last few months as part of a secret military mission.
Details of the searches by British, American and Iraqi forces emerged as the kidnappers issued a videotaped statement claiming that one of the abducted Britons had killed himself.
The British Government had acknowledged that indirect talks had been taking place with Shia fighters believed to be holding the men in retaliation for the arrest by Americans of Iranian officials and a prominent militia leader. It can be revealed, however, that at the same time coalition and Iraqi troops have been carrying out operations in and outside Baghdad in an effort to locate the hostages.
According to defence sources the men were almost found around four months ago during a drive by American and Iraqi troops against the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia. A specialist squad, including members of a SAS contingent based at the British embassy in Baghdad, raided a house in Sadr City, the sprawling Shia area adjacent to Baghdad, to find that the men had been moved out just hours ago.
A previous raid, this time carried out by US troops on two houses in the Shia district of Kadhamiya in Baghdad also proved fruitless. The American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, insists that the Britons have been kidnapped by an Iranian-backed militia – a charge strongly denied by Tehran. Iraqi officials say they remain in the country but the tempo of searches has increased amid worries that the kidnapped men may be moved across the border into Iran.
The newly released video, entitled Intihar – Arabic for suicide – shows a man wearing a football shirt, identified as Jason in a statement, which appears on screen in Arabic and is signed, "The Shia Islamic Resistance in Iraq". It accuses the British Government of neglecting the hostages by failing to respond to messages from the kidnappers and their captives and ignoring warnings about the men's psychological trauma. "This procrastination and foot-dragging and lack of seriousness on the part of the British Government has prolonged their psychological deterioration, pushing one of them, Jason, to commit suicide on 25/5/2008," the statement says. "He surprised our brethren, who were taking care of him, with his suicide."
UK officials in London and Baghdad stressed yesterday that there was no "immediate" verification that one of the hostages – identified by his first name Jason – died on 25 May. The tape with the suicide claim was released as Gordon Brown was in Iraq declaring that the security situation was improving in the country and laying down a timetable for withdrawal of UK troops from Basra.
Another hostage, named Alan, is shown on the same video, looking pale and apprehensive, appealing to the British Government to help him and his colleagues obtain their freedom. "Physically, I'm not doing well," he says. "Psychologically, I'm doing a lot worse. I want to see my family again. I would like for the British Government to please hurry," says Alan, who appeared anxious. "Please hurry and try and get this resolved as soon as possible." Several seconds after his appeal, a caption appears saying "Home 0, Visitors 0".
Alan's wife Roseleen said she was relieved to have received any communication from him after nearly 14 months of separation and worry. "Our family miss him desperately and really want him to come home soon. I want to ask his captors to release him unharmed."
Jason, the kidnappers say, had tried to take his own life twice before. He was previously shown in another video last year saying: "Today is November 18 ... I have been here now for 173 days, and I feel we have been forgotten."
The Britons, an IT consultant named Peter Moore and four bodyguards, two of whom were called Jason, and Alan and Alec, were kidnapped from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May last year. Mr Moore worked for BearingPoint, a US management consulting firm based in Virginia, and the guards were employed by the Canadian security firm GardaWorld.
The abductors are said to have demanded the release of a group of Iranians detained by American forces in Baghdad last January. It is also claimed that the men are being held to secure the release of Qais al-Khazaali, a former chief spokesman for the Mehdi army, held by American forces after a raid on a US base in which five solders were killed.
In late February, the families of the men released their own video, read by Pauline Sweeney, Mr Moore's stepmother, pleading for their release. The kidnappers responded a month later with a posting on a militant website rejecting the plea as inspired by the British Government. In May, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey lent his voice to the families' appeal, addressing the kidnappers as "honorable men" and "men of faith".
Speaking during a visit to Jerusalem, Gordon Brown said yesterday: "This abhorrent film will only add to the anguish of families who have suffered a great deal over a year for their loved ones who have been kept in captivity.
"I raised the matter with Prime Minister Maliki yesterday when I was in Iraq. I have also raised it on a number of occasions, not only with the Iraqi Government, but with the Americans and others who are active in Iraq."
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