Sunni group: Free 5 hostages


Iraqi soldiers question a man during a raid in Saadah, Iraq, eight miles from the border with Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2005.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 9:08 p.m.
BAGHDAD, Iraq - An influential Sunni clerical group called Wednesday for the release of five Westerners taken hostage in a grim revival of the kidnappings that shook Iraq last year, saying they should be freed on humanitarian grounds.
The Association of Muslim Scholars is believed to have contacts with some Sunni insurgent groups and has helped mediate the releases of other captives in Iraq.
The five include four aid workers from the group Christian Peacemaker Teams - Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; Norman Kember, 74, of London; and James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, of Canada - and German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, 43.
The association said freeing Osthoff would recognize Germany's "positive" stand toward Iraq. Germany opposed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Osthoff and her Iraqi driver were seized Friday and were later pictured in a videotape blindfolded on a floor, with militants armed with a rocket-propelled grenade standing beside them.
In the northern city of Mosul, the head of the regional antiquities department, Muzahem Mahmoud al-Zawbai, said he warned authorities Osthoff was not safe and that he could not be responsible for her security due to insurgent activity. It was unclear if the authorities relayed the warning to Osthoff, who was working to renovate a historic house.
Stephan Kroll, an archaeologist at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilian University, where Osthoff studied, said she had told colleagues she was worried "something could happen to her."
Osthoff said she had been "stopped and held" on several occasions by unidentified groups seeking money, Kroll said. "She said she always got away because she could speak Arabic and because she told them she was on a humanitarian mission."
Kroll said Osthoff left the institute in 1991 without completing her master's degree and had "very limited expertise" as an archaeologist. He said he doubted reports that antiquities smugglers could have kidnapped her because she was disturbing their work.
University staff and friends pleaded with Osthoff not to go back to Iraq, but "she never listened. She went her own way," Kroll said. "She thought it was her mission to help the people."
The statement from the Muslim clerics said Osthoff was married to an Iraqi Muslim, "who is a member of the Shammar tribe from Mosul." The tribe, one of Iraq's largest, includes Shiites as well as Sunni clans. Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer is a senior Shammar figure.
The kidnappers have threatened to kill Osthoff and her driver unless Germany halts contacts with the Iraqi government. German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed in a speech before parliament Wednesday that her government would "not let ourselves be blackmailed" by militants.
Germany's ZDF television broadcast pictures of German Ambassador Bernd Erbel meeting with the Association of Muslim Scholars on Monday in Baghdad.
The ZDF report said there were indications the kidnappers were Sunnis linked to the former ruling Baath party, but did not identify the source of its information.
The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel in Thursday's edition cited German security officials as saying Osthoff had told Iraqi authorities she planned to travel to an excavation site about 200 miles from Baghdad. The officials said insurgent sympathizers in the Iraqi security services may have passed on her plans to the kidnappers, the report said.
The four Christian aid workers were taken captive Saturday and appeared in a video broadcast Tuesday by Al-Jazeera television. A previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade claimed they were spies.
The aid group they belonged to dismissed the allegation.
"These accusations are made routinely in these cases, without evidence of any kind and simply a justification for holding foreign nationals," Robin Buyers, a coordinator for Christian Peacemaker Teams, said Wednesday.
In urging the men's release, the Association of Muslim Scholars said freeing them would recognize their "good efforts in helping those in need."
Iraqi police suspect the kidnappings may be part of an insurgent plan to sow disorder ahead of Dec. 15 elections, but U.S. officials have refused to speculate about the motive.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday there was "no information to suggest that these (abductions) are connected."
"Our embassy officials are working closely with Iraqi officials and officials from other missions whose citizens are being held to locate and secure the release of these individuals," he said.
Some security experts believe the spate of kidnappings may be due to lax security. Although many foreigners were taken hostage last year, abductions tapered off after the fall of the insurgent bastion Fallujah to a U.S.-led assault in November 2004.
"It depends on availability of victims for kidnapping. People might have lowered their guards," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington.
Insurgents may also be mixing up their tactics to draw attention, turning to kidnappings after an intense period of car bombings and suicide attacks, he said.
"Kidnappings of Iraqis have continued and never stopped," and the latest snatching of Westerners "may be the result of carelessness" in security, agreed Joost Hiltermann of International Crisis Group based in Amman, Jordan.
Another terrorism expert, Evan F. Kohlman, said the abductors may be seeking ransom.
"These are not hardcore insurgent groups," he said. "The more publicity they get about kidnapping, the better chance to make money."

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