The kidnapping of the peace activist, Norman Kember, and three other Westerners in Iraq was condemned by the Foreign Office last night as video footage showing the men was screened on Arab television.
The video was apparently shot by a previously unknown group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, who accused the four of being spies masquerading at Christian peace activists.
Friends of Mr Kember, a grandfather and a former professor at a teaching hospital, dismissed the spy claim. The Foreign Office issued a brief statement denouncing the kidnapping of the four men. It added: "The release of this video can only cause further distress to their families at this difficult time."
In the footage, dated 27 November, Mr Kember is seen sitting on the floor next to his fellow hostages with a flag bearing crossed black swords and the group's name hanging on the wall over him. It also showed a close-up of the Briton's passport. The tape was delivered to the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera.
The Swords of Righteousness is a hitherto unknown group. However, US and Iraqi officials said that they appeared to be Sunnis.
A senior Iraqi government official said that no demand had been made by the group and no specific threats had been issued against the hostages. "We believe this indicates room for negotiations," he said.
Geoffrey Whitfield, who has known Mr Kember for 50 years, said he worried for the health of his fellow peace activist. "Norman looks rough, not very bright," he said. "Clearly he will be frightened - anyone would. But he knew what he was taking on and will have forewarned himself to try to behave with dignity if this happened."
The Rev Alan Betteridge, who met Mr Kember 40 years ago through their peace campaigning work, said: "At least the silence is broken. But we don't know anything about this group and the fact they said he was a spy ... that isn't true. Norman would never kow-tow to any government. These are testing times but I believe him to be a man of considerable resilience and strength of belief."
Just hours before the release of the footage, the aid organisation where the four men - two Canadians, an American and Mr Kember - worked issued a statement saying that they were in the country solely for the benefit of the people of Iraq.
The organisation, which is based in Chicago, has been active in Iraq since 2002 and carried out humanitarian work on behalf of detainees held by American and Iraqi forces. Mr Kember and a colleague were part of a visiting delegation while the other two were staff based in Iraq.
All of them, said the organisation, were fully aware of the dangers they faced being in the country. The statement said: "The teams' work has focused on documenting and focusing public attention on detainee abuses, connecting citizens of Iraq to local and international human rights organisations and accompanying Iraqi civilians as they interact with multinational military personnel and Iraqi government officials."
The organisation added that it "does not advocate the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a conflict situation".
In a sign of an escalation of kidnappings, a German woman and her Iraqi driver, and six Iranian pilgrims were also abducted in separate incidents.
Susanne Osthoff, a 43-year-old archaeologist, and her driver had gone missing while travelling to an excavation site. A video showing them blindfolded and surrounded by three armed men was delivered to the offices of the German broadcaster ARD in Baghdad.
In the tape, the kidnappers threatened to kill Ms Osthoff, who speaks fluent Arabic and has lived in Iraq for a number of years, unless the German government stopped co-operating with the US-backed Iraqi administration. Germany is training members of the new Iraqi army in bases outside the country.
Iraqi and US officials said the spate of attacks on foreigners could be related to the re-opening of the trial of Saddam Hussein. However there is also the possibility that the hostages were being taken for the period running up to the national elections on 15 December.
Earlier yesterday, a third British Muslim shot while on pilgrimage in Iraq died. Yahya Gulamali, from Greenford in west London, died at the Ibn Senna Hospital in Baghdad. Iraqi police believe the Britons may have been followed before gunmen in two cars opened fire on their minibus as they returned to Baghdad from the Shia shrine at Karbala.
Who are the kidnappers?
Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which released the video to al-Jazeera, is previously unknown. In some reports, the group is also referred to as the Swords of Truth. The name relates to the appeals of Iraqi state radio in April 2003, when US forces seized Saddam Hussein's main palace in Baghdad. "Rise up against oppression and tyranny. Draw the swords of righteousness in the face of falsehood," they said.
Al-Jazeera said it could not verify any of the information on the tape.
The channel is the main outlet for the so-called terror videos, many released by previously unknown groups. In April, a video bearing the logo of the Muadh ibn Jabd Brigade showed three Romanian journalists abducted in Baghdad in March. The kidnappers threatened to kill them unless Romanian troops were pulled from Iraq, but released them after appeals by Romania's Muslims and a Saudi preacher.
In May, al-Jazeera aired a video showing the abducted Australian engineer Douglas Wood at gunpoint, appealing for the withdrawal of Australian and other forces from Iraq. A sign on the tape gave the name of the Shura Council of the Mujahideen of Iraq.
A video showing the US hostage Jeffrey Ake, a subcontractor who went missing in April, was one of the few not to include a banner or sign giving the name of the kidnappers. Video footage of hostages has also been used by insurgents in Afghanistan.
A video showing the German aid worker Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver, who were kidnapped four days ago, was sent not to al-Jazeera but to Germany's public ARD television station.Reuse content