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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Militants Appear to Kill 12 Iraq Hostages

Startling images of Nepalese workers' deaths are posted on the Web. A deadline passes for the execution of two French journalists.

September 01, 2004|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In what appears to be the deadliest episode in a wave of abductions, a militant Islamic group aired a gruesome video on its website Tuesday that it said showed the killings of 12 Nepalese workers who were kidnapped two weeks ago.

The workers would be the biggest group of hostages slain in Iraq during a five-month period in which dozens of foreigners have been abducted by insurgents and criminal gangs. The killings would rank among the world's largest hostage executions in recent decades.

As the four-minute video appeared on the site of the Ansar al Sunna Army on Tuesday afternoon, French officials were working feverishly to persuade another militant group to free two French journalists captured nearly two weeks ago south of Baghdad.

A new deadline passed Tuesday night with no word on the pair, Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of the newspaper Le Figaro.

Their captors, calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq, had set a 48-hour deadline for the French government to repeal a recent law banning Islamic head scarves in public schools. The deadline was extended 24 hours Monday night. The same group is believed to be responsible for the abduction of an Italian journalist, who was slain last week.

The government's appeals to free the journalists were joined by Muslim activists in France and religious figures in Iraq.

Mohammed Bashar Faidi, spokesman for the Board of Clergy and Scholars in Iraq, urged the kidnappers to free the journalists, noting that France had opposed the American-led invasion.

"We need to focus all our powers to end this occupation," Faidi said on television hours before the kidnappers' deadline. "We think that executing the French journalists will not help our case."

The Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, was killed after Italy refused demands to remove its troops from Iraq. Baldoni disappeared in an area south of Baghdad where Westerners are in danger of being attacked or abducted.

The Nepalese workers were seized sometime after Aug. 19 as they traveled from Jordan through a region west of Baghdad that also has seen numerous killings and kidnappings of foreigners. The militants said they abducted the workers because they were helping U.S. forces. No specific demands were made.

In Katmandu, Nepal's capital, thousands of people ransacked a mosque and clashed with police today to protest the killings, Associated Press reported.

"We want revenge!" demonstrators shouted as they stormed the unoccupied Jama mosque -- the city's only Muslim house of worship. They broke windows and set fire to carpets, furniture and parts of the building.

The Nepalese hostages had been hired by a Jordanian company and were among thousands of foreigners who have flocked to Iraq in search of jobs with the U.S. military and private contractors.

At least 80,000 foreigners, including Americans, are in Iraq working on U.S. government contracts, and tens of thousands of others are employed by the Iraqi government and private companies.

Nepalese officials were unable to independently confirm the deaths.

Shyamananda Suman, the Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, said officials had sought in vain to work through Iraqi mediators to free the men.

Nepal has no diplomatic presence in Iraq.

"The problem was that there was no communication from the other side. Nepalese officials had put a lot of effort and had contacted Iraqi religious leaders to help release the hostages," Suman told a television station in Katmandu.

The website video showed one hostage, bare-chested and wearing a white blindfold, lying face up as one of his two attackers appeared to hack off his head with a knife. The tape carried the sound of moaning, then a high-pitched wheezing. The knife-wielding man held up the head and placed it on the victim's chest.

The tape then showed 11 hostages shot in succession with an assault rifle as they lay next to one another, face down in the sand and with their hands and legs apparently unrestrained.

One of the assailants wore desert camouflage fatigues and the other a black mask.

A written message said, "What you witnessed with your own eyes is the destiny of any traitor and spy ... so take the rest of your people back before they will be sent back to you in coffins."

Nepal does not permit its citizens to work in Iraq, but many have come nonetheless, after stops in Jordan or Kuwait. Relatives of some hostages said the men originally set out for jobs in Jordan.

The hostages appeared on a videotape last weekend saying that they had been misled into working in Iraq.

In the statement, one worker said they had been told Iraq was not dangerous.

"We ask anyone who wants to come to Iraq not to be misled by these high [salaries], because they are false and America is lying," the hostage said in the statement, which appeared on the website of the militant group.

Jit Bahadur Khadka, the father of one of the hostages, said his son, 19-year-old Ramesh, planned to be away for two years.

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