The deadline for murder passes with no word from kidnappers

Unknown Iraqi group appears reluctant to listen to pleas from the world's Muslims
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The Independent Online

Friends and relatives of Norman Kember, the British peace campaigner held hostage in Iraq along with three colleagues, desperately prayed for him and expressed their fears for his safety as a threatened execution deadline passed last night.

For fellow worshippers at the Baptist church in Pinner, Middlesex, which he attended at least twice a week, yesterday was a grim milestone in a two-week campaign to secure the hostages' release. The men are being held by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade that is demanding Iraqi prisoners be freed. It has not set a precise hour to carry out its threat.

Mr Kember went to Iraq last month with Tom Fox, a 54-year-old American, and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32. All were members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a Canada-based international pacifist group. They were seized on 26 November, 10 days into their mission to meet Iraqis of different faiths and spread the organisation's message of non-violence.

The kidnappers, a previously unknown group, had originally threatened to kill Mr Kember and his three companions by Thursday unless Iraqi prisoners were freed. That deadline was later extended until yesterday, but belief that this might be a hopeful sign was dampened by the increasingly menacing tone of a series of videos released by their captors.

"My worry is, how do the captors extricate themselves from this, without losing face?" said Rev Alan Betteridge, a friend of Mr Kember's last night. "Either they lose face if they free them, or they are really out on a limb if they execute them. Somebody has to find a way to let them out of this."

Yesterday, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said the kidnappers had made no contact today. The Foreign Office in London had no developments to report.

Mr Betteridge, a retired Baptist minister from Coventry, said he was hopeful "because of the concerted voice from the Muslim world".

A series of leading Islamic clerics and leaders around the world have called on the group to free the men. "The kidnappers must be surprised at the amount of pressure being put on them, even from people they might have thought would approve. They must be hearing that," said Mr Betteridge.

In the first video released by the kidnappers the four captives were chained, but wearing their own clothes. This, and the amateurish quality of the camerawork, allayed fears that they had fallen into the hands of the ruthless groups associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq.

Those anxious about the men's fate allowed themselves to hope that this might be a criminal kidnapping for ransom, thinly disguised as a political gesture.

But the four were later to appear in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by America's prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. In previous hostage cases, this has been a prelude to murder.

The third video introduced another twist: only the British and American hostages appeared, with the two Canadians absent. Did this mean the kidnappers were drawing a distinction between the citizens of countries which invaded Iraq and still have troops there, and those from a nation that stayed out of the conflict? As with most aspects of hostage-taking in Iraq, one could only guess. One thing was clear: Norman Kember knew the dangers of going to Iraq and accepted them.

The retired physics professor had enjoyed a distinguished career before devoting most of his time to peace activism. He graduated in physics before joining Professor Len Lamerton in the early days of the Institute of Cancer Research, at what was to become the Royal Marsden Hospital in London from the late 1950s onwards. Over the next two decades, he worked at the Department of Medical Physics and the Royal Free Hospital before ending his career at the medical college of St Bartholomew's Hospital. His published papers were largely concerned with defining the safe limits of radiotherapy, marking the point where the risks outweighed the benefits. He helped to develop live-saving radiotherapy cancer treatment.

A father of two grown-up daughters, Jo and Sally, and a grandfather to Jo's son, Ben, Mr Kember is frequently praised for his integrity. At his local Baptist church he is editor of the church magazine and secretary of its Sunday school, while his wife Pat, 72, is the church's assistant secretary.

In May, after watching a presentation on volunteer "peacemaker" teams in Iraq, he wrote in a Fellowship of Reconciliation newsletter: "In Britain, talking, writing, demonstrating about peace is in no way taking risks like servicemen in Iraq. I look for excuses why I should not become involved with [peacemaker teams working on the ground in Baghdad]. Perhaps the readers will supply me with some."

If he heard any reasons, he decided to disregard them. Shortly before he left for Baghdad, Mr Kember told Premier Christian Radio the trip was designed as a "gesture of solidarity" with the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. He said: "I've done a lot of writing and talking about peacemaking. I've demonstrated - but I feel that's what I'd call cheap peacemaking."

The price Mr Kember and his companions may be about to be pay would be the heaviest of all.

Reporting by Tom Anderson, John Lichfield in Paris, Ruth Elkins in Berlin and Rupert Cornwell in Washington

HELD IN IRAQ

Bernard Planche: French, 52, NGO head

Ronald Shulz: American, 40, security

Tom Fox: American, 54, ex-grocer

Harmeet Singh: Canadian, 32, engineer

James Loney: Canadian, 41, peace activist

Jeffrey Ake: American, 47, engineer

Susanne Osthoff: German, 43, archaeologist

Aban Elias: American, 42 engineer

Rifat Mohammed Rifat: Canadian, 42, construction

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