Stay of execution gives hope to Kember's family

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The Independent Online

The family of the British hostage in Iraq, Norman Kember, have received a glimmer of hope with his captors offering a stay of execution.

Despite a video of him in an orange boiler suit, the garb which the British hostage Ken Bigley wore before being murdered, the kidnappers appeared willing to at least open lines of communication.

Once the deadline had been extended yesterday, voices across the political and cultural divide vied to make pleas on behalf of the peace activist, 74.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, made a renewed appeal along with the Muslim Association of Britain, the Stop the War Coalition and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Mr Kember, a Londoner who travelled to Iraq in a gesture of solidarity with the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT), was seized by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade in Baghdad on 26 November along with the Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and the American, Tom Fox, 54. The Islamist group had threatened to kill the men if Iraqi prisoners were not freed from US and Iraqi jails by yesterday.

Anas Altikriti, who travelled to the Middle East on behalf of the Muslim Association of Britain, took the delay as a hopeful sign: "At last we know now that the channels that we have been using have been getting through to them."

Having travelled to Jordan for meetings with expatriate Iraqi Sunnis, he said: "What I saw was quite a consensus that this was absolutely wrong and that these hostages must be released immediately.

"People were willing to make contact and make calls. I generally got a very positive feeling."

The Iraqi media have called for the hostages to be released and also set up a hotline for information.

Mr Altikriti added: "The very few times that the deadline has been extended, the outcome was usually satisfactory."

Mr Straw reiterated his message that the Government was willing to listen to the kidnappers, adding: "We have people in Iraq itself and in the region and they are ready to hear from the kidnappers."

Yesterday's video, broadcast on al-Jazeera television, made direct reference to the "British foreign minister" and appeared to show a willingness at least to trade statements.

Maureen Jack, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team, said it was "difficult to know" whether to be hopeful about the latest developments.

Meanwhile, UK anti-war campaigners issued their own plea, saying the hostage-takers' "legitimate and just demand" for the release of Iraqi prisoners would not be helped by holding the men.