Troops save 3 hostages held in Iraq

At least 56 killed in country, with violence increasing in Baghdad

March 24, 2006|By AAMER MADHANI AND CHARLES SHEEHAN | AAMER MADHANI AND CHARLES SHEEHAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Without firing a bullet, U.S. and British troops yesterday rescued three activists working with a Christian peace group who had been abducted in the Iraqi capital four months ago.

Hours after detaining a man who told them he knew the exact location where the aid workers were tucked away, the troops swarmed a house west of Baghdad and found the men sitting in a room shackled and without a captor in sight.

The release of James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both of Canada, and Norman Kember, 74, of Britain provided a fleeting moment of good news on yet another dismal day of violence in Iraq that left at least 56 dead.

In the most deadly attack, 25 people - including 10 civilians - were killed when a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside the Interior Ministry's major crimes unit in Baghdad's predominantly-Shiite Karradah district.

The attacks followed five days in which there had been no incidents in the capital involving car bombs, suicide car bombs or suicide attackers wearing vests packed with explosives, according to an American military spokesman, who said that the relative lull was a result of expanded security operations in Baghdad. But the convergence of the devastating attacks, coming within about four hours of one another, suggested that the guerrillas' ability to operate in the capital remained unfettered.

The peace activists were abducted Nov. 26 along with their American colleague Tom Fox. The Virginia man's bullet-riddled body was found dumped in a rural area in Baghdad two weeks ago. A previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigades claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

For the friends and family of the men released from captivity, the joy was tinged by the sadness of Fox's murder.

"We have longed for the day when all four men would be released together," Carol Rose, director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, told reporters in Chicago. "Our gladness today is made bittersweet by the fact that Tom is not alive to join in the celebration."

The whereabouts of another American who was abducted in January, freelance journalist Jill Carroll, remain unknown. Carroll has appeared in three videotapes delivered by her kidnappers to Arab news networks, and the deadline her captors set for killing her nearly a month ago passed without word about her fate.

"My expectation and hope is that the released hostages and the associated activities, in terms of information gathered, could help us bring about her release as well," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview with Fox News.

The peace activists released yesterday are devoted pacifists and part of an organization that opposes the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Members of the group, which has done work in Fallujah, Najaf and Karbala as well as Baghdad, had been investigating allegations of detainee abuse by coalition forces and roamed streets that few Westerners would be willing to walk without weapons or a security detail.

The three survivors were examined in a military hospital in Iraq and appeared to be in good health, according to members of the peace group. Although they had lost some weight, they were in good shape and there were no signs they were tortured, the peace group reported.

Rose said her organization was happy no shots were fired during the rescue. In a statement written before his death, Fox said he did not want anyone to exert violence to rescue him if he were taken captive in Iraq. Rose said the kidnappings had reinforced her group's commitment to nonviolence and peace in Iraq.

"During these past months, we have tasted of the pain that has been the daily bread of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis," Rose said.

The men were being debriefed yesterday by coalition forces and are hoping to rejoin their families within the next few days, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a U.S. military spokesman.

The announcement of their release first came in London, where British Foreign Minister Jack Straw told reporters that liberating the hostages was the culmination of efforts by British and U.S. troops with assistance from Canadian personnel.

"It follows weeks and weeks of very careful work by military and coalition personnel in Iraq and many civilians as well," Straw said.

But in Baghdad, Lynch said there was only about three hours between the time coalition troops learned of the hostages' whereabouts and when they found them.

Lynch said coalition troops had detained two men late Wednesday. During an interview with one of the men about 5 a.m. yesterday, the detainee offered up the location of Kember, Loney and Sooden.

U.S. and British troops were dispatched to the site and monitored the house for a while before entering, Lynch said. By 8 a.m., troops had charged the home and the three hostages were discovered.

At least 250 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since the beginning of the war and 40 have been killed by their captors, including American businessmen; an aid worker with British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship; and 12 Nepalese laborers who were beheaded.

The last hostage to be freed in a military operation was Douglas Wood, an Australian rescued in western Baghdad by U.S. and Iraqi forces June 15 after 47 days in captivity.

Aamer Madhani and Charles Sheehan write for the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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