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Relief as execution deadline extended

Published: 6:57AM Thursday December 08, 2005 Source: One News/RNZ

An Iraqi militant group holding four Western aid workers, including New Zealand resident Harmeet Sooden, has extended the deadline to kill them by another 48 hours until Saturday.

The Swords of Righteousness Brigade had set Thursday as the deadline to kill the four unless Iraqi prisoners were freed. But the group are now claiming they will execute him and three other hostages unless all Iraqi prisoners are released by to December 10.

Sooden's brother-in-law Mark Brewer says the family is welcoming the temporary reprieve.

"It feels to us as if someone has shifted Christmas day a little bit. We looked for the release today. We hoped and prayed, obviously it's not going to happen."

Al Jazeera television has aired brief video footage of two of the hostages. Peace activists Tom Fox and Briton Norman Kember are shown blindfolded, shackled and wearing Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuits in the video and appealing to their governments to stop the war and save their lives.

There is no sign of Sooden or his fellow hostage James Loney in the video, who in the last tape were shown eating biscuits and grapes and talking of being home soon.

Sooden, who was doing humanitarian work in Iraq's capital, Baghdad was kidnapped with three others at gunpoint last month.

About 40 people, including many friends of the 32-year-old, held a candle-lit vigil on Wednesday night in Auckland to pray for his safe release.

Sooden's brother-in-law, Mark Brewer, says the family remains hopeful.

Meanwhile, there's been a potential lifeline thrown to Sodden from an unlikely source.

Jailed Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, known as "Osama Bin Laden's ambassador to Europe" has recorded a plea to release the hostages.

A Jordanian cleric jailed in Britain for links to al Qaeda has called for their release, saying the men should not be punished for the policies of their governments.

"I, your brother Abu Qatada, ... beseech my brothers in the Swords of Truth in Iraq, who are imprisoning the four Christian peace activists, to release them in accordance with the fundamental principle of mercy of our faith," he said in an appeal aired on Arab television networks on Wednesday.

"Our prophet said mercy should be shown unless there is a reason in Sharia (Islamic law) that prevents it," he added in a videotape supplied to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya channels by his lawyers.

Brewer says Sooden's family is welcoming the help.

"That's fanastic for us it means there's even more pressure for us that a release needs to be made pretty soon."

 Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has also made an appeal on behalf of the hostages.

The Palestinians say Sodden and his group, The Christian Peacemakers, have stood beside them in their struggles with Israel.

"We are trying to establish contacts with Iraqis of the kind that might lead into the kidnappers and might have some influence there," says Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib.

Sooden's family say they are thrilled by all the offers of help and remain optimistic he will be released unharmed