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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Videos Show Hostages in Iraq

Five Western activists, four Iranian pilgrims and an Iraqi interpreter are now missing.

November 30, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed Tuesday for the release of one of her compatriots abducted a day earlier in Iraq, the ninth foreigner kidnapped since Saturday.

The abductee, 43-year-old archeologist and activist Susanne Osthoff, was kidnapped Monday with her Iraqi interpreter. A video still broadcast Tuesday on German television showed her blindfolded and surrounded by gunmen.

Also Tuesday, Al Jazeera satellite television aired an insurgent video showing four Western hostages seated cross-legged on the floor. The video is dated Sunday and bears the insignia of a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. No audio was broadcast, but the channel said the tape contained a declaration condemning the four men as "spies of the occupation forces."

The hostages are activists with the Christian Peacemaker Teams organization. The U.S.-based group said the four had been abducted Saturday in Baghdad and it identified them as Tom Fox, 34, of Clearbrook, Va.; Norman Kember, 74, of London; and James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both of Canada.

In addition to the five Westerners and Iraqi interpreter, four Iranian religious pilgrims seized Monday remained missing.

The sudden surge in kidnapping comes after a comparative lull. Abductions of foreigners were frequent through the end of last year, but tapered off as many non-Iraqis left the country and those who stayed adopted more stringent security measures. Irish journalist Rory Carroll was abducted in October but released unharmed after 36 hours.

Carroll's kidnapping was viewed as an isolated incident perpetrated by Shiite Arab militiamen. But the new spate of abductions indicates that Sunni Arab insurgents once again are targeting foreigners living outside Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone.

Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffaq Rubaie said the rapid development of Iraqi security forces had prompted insurgents to focus on "soft targets."

"They don't need a lot of planning, don't need a lot of intel. They don't need explosives" to commit a kidnapping, he said.

More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. At least 50 have been executed.

The Iranian hostages were among a group of six Shiite religious pilgrims ambushed Monday near the town of Balad, about 50 miles north of the capital, the Interior Ministry said.

The group, four Iranian men and two women plus an Iraqi driver and his mother, had stopped at a gas station when four carloads of gunmen approached and demanded the driver hand over the Iranian men. The women were turned over the Iranian Embassy, but the four men remain missing, the Interior Ministry said.

On Tuesday, Christian Peacemaker Teams issued a statement urging the release of its four workers and emphasizing the organization's long-standing opposition to the Iraq invasion and its work on behalf of Iraqi prisoners.

"We are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. government due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people," the statement said.

In Berlin, Merkel condemned the abduction of Osthoff and issued "an urgent appeal to the perpetrators to release the two to safety immediately." Merkel said a crisis team had been formed within the Foreign Ministry to track the situation.

"You can be sure the government will do everything in its power to bring the two to safety and protect their lives," she said.

Germany has refused to send troops to Iraq since former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's vigorous opposition to the U.S.-led invasion. The newly elected Merkel is seeking to repair relations with Washington, but she has stated that she will not reverse German policy on troop deployment. Berlin is training Iraqi security forces in Germany and the United Arab Emirates.

Osthoff's mother told German TV that her daughter had been working on securing deliveries of medical aid to Iraq. She added that Osthoff had been working in Iraq for years and "showed an interest in the people, the culture and the country."

Osthoff, 43, speaks Arabic, is married to a Jordanian and has lived in Iraq for more than two years, said a German journalist who met her several times.

In other violence Tuesday, two U.S. soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, the military said. The names of the soldiers were withheld pending notification of their families.

Elsewhere, two campaign workers for the Assyrian Democratic Party, Iraq's largest Christian political party, were killed Tuesday in Mosul, officials said early today. Unidentified gunmen shot the two while they were driving around the city to put up billboards promoting the December election.

*

Times special correspondent Asmaa Waguih and staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin contributed to this report.

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