Captors threaten to kill 4 activists


Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 10:20 p.m.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Kidnappers holding four Christian peace activists gave U.S. and Iraqi authorities a "last chance" to release all detainees in Iraq, threatening to kill the hostages if their demands were not met in a videotape broadcast Saturday.

At least 22 people were killed in scattered violence across the country, including a U.S. soldier in a roadside bombing in Baghdad and 10 Iraqis in a bombing at a candy store in a mostly Shiite town south of the capital.

The hostages - two Canadians, an American and a Briton - were shown on the tape broadcast by Al-Jazeera looking gaunt and standing near a white wall in what appeared to be a house, then it cuts away to another shot in which they were seated and talking, but their voices were not heard.

The pan-Arab station's announcer said the group, the "Swords of Righteousness Brigades," issued a statement warning it was the "last chance" for U.S. and Iraqi authorities to "release all Iraqi prisoners in return of freeing the hostages."

"Otherwise, their fate will be death," the statement added, without mentioning a deadline.

The broadcast of the Jan. 21-dated video capped a week in which two German engineers were abducted in the northern industrial city of Beiji, and the U.S. military released five Iraqi women who had been in military custody - a move demanded by the kidnappers of American reporter Jill Carroll to spare her life. The military said the prisoner release was routine and not in response to the ultimatum.

A Sunni Arab political leader, meanwhile, criticized Friday's police crackdowns on Sunni neighborhoods in southern Baghdad, which saw about 60 people detained and three killed, apparently by insurgents.

"We condemn the treacherous and terrorist acts that have targeted and killed dozens of innocent people who were only guilty of rejecting the (U.S.-led) occupation," Khalaf al-Ilyan said at a news conference. "Any government should defend its people, otherwise, why it should be called a government?"

Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein but lost power after his ouster, are the insurgency's driving force and the United States wants them brought into the political process to blunt the violence.

But many have accused Shiite-led security forces of torture and the indiscriminate detention of Sunnis, raising sectarian tensions and complicating negotiations to bring Sunnis into the new government.

The bound and gagged bodies of two men in their 40s who had been shot in the head were found in southern Baghdad's Rustamiyah sewage plant about three miles south of Baghdad, police said.

Al-Ilyan said the Rustamiyah plant had "become the place where families go to search for the bodies of their sons killed by the government forces or militias."

Police also found the buried bodies of six laborers who had been bound, gagged and shot in the head near the southern city of Karbala, spokesman Rahman Mashawi said.

The U.S. soldier was killed in central Baghdad, the U.S. military said. A Marine also was killed Friday in a non-hostile vehicle accident in Fallujah, the military said. At least 2,240 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Gunmen in central Baghdad also shot to death prominent professor and political analyst Abdul-Razzaq al-Naas, a Shiite who often appeared on Arab TV talk shows to discuss Iraqi politics, police said. During a recent appearance on a panel show, al-Naas spoke out strongly against the government's failure to improve security and the economy.

At least seven other people were killed in separate shootings across Baghdad, police said.

A bomb hit a candy store in a market Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, Saturday evening, killing 10 people and wounding three, police Capt. Muthanna Khalid said.

In the northern city of Mosul, militants killed a policeman 30 minutes before slaying another who had left the force, police said. A roadside bombing in the western city of Fallujah killed one policeman.

Separately, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw raised the topic of troop withdrawals, saying Britain hopes to lower its troop numbers but only once Iraq's government is secure.

"We hope to do some of that during the course of this year," Straw said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, without specifying an exact date. Some 8,500 British troops are in Iraq.

Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32; Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va., and Norman Kember, 74, of London, were seized Nov. 26 as they were working with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which investigates allegations of abuse against Iraqi prisoners.

"We're still very concerned but at least we have proof that they are alive," Loney's youngest brother, Matthew, said in a telephone interview from Vancouver, British Columbia. "The four look to be OK, but it looks like they have lost weight."

The video, which could not be independently authenticated, was the third released showing the four activists in captivity, including one that threatened their lives unless all prisoners were freed in Iraq by Dec. 10.

Al-Jazeera editor Saad al-Dosari declined to say how the station obtained the tape, which was about 55 seconds long and aired in its entirety.

Christian Peacemaker Teams, which has offices in Toronto and Chicago and has been working in Iraq since October 2002, said it was encouraged to see the activists alive and called on their kidnappers to release them unharmed.

"This news is an answer to our prayers. We continue to hope and pray for their release," Rebecca Johnson, a Canadian-based coordinator for the group, said.

In Chicago, Carol Rose, co-director of the group, said the organization has been working with U.S. diplomats to free the captives.

Rose also said the group, which plans to hold a vigil in front of the White House on Sunday, has sent a letter to President Bush calling on him to set a date for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, to end all aerial bombing and to honor the civil rights of all detainees.

More than 250 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since Saddam's ouster, and at least 39 have been killed.

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Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Carla K. Johnson in Chicago contributed to this report.

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