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Deadline passes, no word on hostages

Published: 8:33AM Sunday December 11, 2005 Source: RNZ/Reuters

A deadline set for the killing of four Western peace workers, including an Auckland student, taken hostage in Iraq passed without news after kidnappers put to death an Egyptian working for the US military there.

New Zealand resident Harmeet Singh Sooden was one of four men kidnapped in Baghdad a fortnight ago by a previously unknown group calling itself Swords of Truth. The group has threatened to kill them unless all prisoners in Iraq are freed this weekend.

The dead Egyptian, named by the Egyptian news agency MENA as 46-year-old Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Hilali, worked as a translator in Tikrit before he was taken hostage this week. Police said his body was found near a village north of Tikrit with his identity papers in his pocket.

Sooden, a 32-year-old Canadian citizen, is a member of the humanitarian group Christian Peacemaker Teams. He was kidnapped, along with American Tom Fox, 54, Briton Norman Kember, 74, and Canadian James Loney, 41.

Two days ago their captors said they would kill the hostages by Saturday if its demand for the release of thousands of prisoners from Iraqi jails was not met, extending its initial deadline by two days.

American captive Tom Fox's daughter Katherine appeared on CNN on Saturday, asking his captors to spare him.

"Both my father and I believe that the Iraqi people have legitimate concern regarding the US government's occupation and presence in Iraq," she said. "We believe that these grievances, however, will not be resolved by taking my father's life.

"As he and our family have previously stated, my father is not willing to sacrifice his dedication to the Iraqi people for any armed assistance from the US government."

The Iraqi government and the US military said they had released 238 prisoners from Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca - the two main detention centres for some 14,000 guerrilla suspects in Iraq, whose detention is a widespread source of grievance among the Sunni minority.

But the Americans stressed the release was part of normal operations and not a response to the kidnapping.

"We will continue to release more and more detainees," said the US military, which frees hundreds of prisoners each month but does not usually make statements on their release.

A leading British Muslim negotiator says the mission to secure the release of the four hostages is extremely difficult.

Negotiator Anas al Tikriti says he has been trying to establish contact with the kidnappers since last week.

Harmeet Sooden's family will travel to the Middle East next week regardless of the outcome.

A spokesperson for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs says members of Sooden's family have received some assistance in organising their travel visas.