Freedom for three Western peace activists and hopes for Jill Carroll
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Without firing a shot, U.S. and British forces stormed a house Thursday and freed three Christian peace activists who were bound but unguarded, ending a four-month hostage ordeal that saw an American in the group killed and dumped along a railroad track.The U.S. ambassador and the top American military spokesman held out hope the operation on the outskirts of Baghdad could lead to a break in the captivity of American reporter Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for The Christian Science Monitor who was abducted Jan. 7.The military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, said the 8 a.m. rescue of the Briton and two Canadians from a “kidnapping cell” was based on information divulged by a man during interrogation only three hours earlier. The man was captured by U.S. forces on Wednesday night.A senior Iraqi military officer told The Associated Press, however, that the operation had been under way for two days in the Abu Ghraib suburb west of Baghdad, site of the notorious prison. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position, said U.S. and British forces refused to give him other details.Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadian forces also took part in the rescue operation, although their precise role was unclear.But the joyful news was tempered by violence that raged throughout Iraq as the day wore on. Fifty-eight people were killed in execution-style slayings, bombings and gun battles. For the third straight day, Sunni insurgents hit a major police and jail facility – this time with a suicide car bombing that killed 25 in central Baghdad.Lynch said a reinforced U.S. and Iraqi security presence in the capital had prevented car bombings on five recent consecutive days, but acknowledged that attacks “surged today.”No kidnappers were present when the troops broke into the house where the peace activists were discovered with their hands tied.”They were bound, they were together, there were no kidnappers in the areas,” Lynch told a news briefing.The freed men were Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and Briton Norman Kember, 74. The men – members of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams – were kidnapped Nov. 26 along with an American colleague, Tom Fox, 54.Fox’s body was found this month, shot and dumped in western Baghdad.”We remember with tears Tom Fox,” group co-director Doug Pritchard said in Toronto. “We had longed for the day when all four men would be released together. Our gladness today is bittersweet by the fact that Tom is not alive to join his colleagues in the celebration.”The three freed members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were taken to a hospital for observation in Baghdad but were released in good condition, the organization said from the Iraqi capital.British Embassy spokeswoman Lisa Glover said the men would be flown out of Baghdad in the next few days. She said Kember was in “reasonable condition” and spent the day “relaxing and talking to British authorities.”Kember’s wife, Pat, said she had spoken with her husband on the phone.”He was very, very pleased to be free, but he was very emotional in talking to me. I think he must be very worried about me and the family,” she told New Zealand’s Radio Live in an interview replayed by the British Broadcasting Corp.Speaking from her north London home, she said his decision to go to Iraq was “a bit silly,” but added “I knew that he felt he must do something and he’s getting old, and if he (didn’t) do something … it would be too late.”Loney’s brother, Ed, told CBC television that his mother had spoken with James on the phone and that he sounded “fantastic” though “he’s lost quite a bit of weight.””He’s alert and he was asking how we were doing and said he was sorry for the whole situation,” Ed Loney said. “My mom said, ‘Don’t worry about it – just get home and we’ll talk about all that stuff when you get here.’ “He told CNN that he later spoke directly with his brother, who was “having a lovely chicken dinner with potatoes and a nice soup” and “told me about being rescued and seeing the light of day and smelling the outside air.”Ed Loney also said his brother told him he was well taken care of.”He was always warm and always fed and things like that. He was more worried about boredom. … I think that was probably the worst part of it, from what he said.”The Christian Peacemaker Teams volunteers have been in Iraq since October 2002, investigating allegations of abuse against Iraqi detainees by coalition forces. The group says its teams promote peaceful solutions in conflict zones.Pritchard called for coalition forces to leave the country.”We believe that the illegal occupation of Iraq by Multinational Forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping and so much pain and suffering in Iraq,” he said.The kidnapped men were shown as prisoners in several videos, the most recent a silent clip dated Feb. 28 in which Loney, Kember and Sooden appeared without Fox, whose body was found March 10.The previously unknown Swords of Righteousness Brigades claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.”As we study who could conduct these kinds of operations there seems to be a kidnapping cell that has been robust over the last several months in conducting these kind of kidnappings,” Lynch said.While many insurgent groups and the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist organization have kidnapped and often killed foreigners in Iraq, there also is a heavy criminal element involved in such crimes. Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped for ransom and some Westerners are believed to have been grabbed by those criminal gangs as well.Often, it is believed, kidnappers take hostages only for the purposes of selling them into captivity to larger, more organized criminal gangs or insurgent organizations.The last hostage to be freed in a military operation was Douglas Wood, an Australian rescued in west Baghdad by U.S. and Iraqi forces on June 15, 2005, after 47 days in captivity.Lynch said there was no new information on Carroll that “I can discuss at this time.” But, he said: “There are other operations that continue probably as a result of what we’re finding at this time. So you’ve got to give us the opportunity to work through that.”Carroll has appeared in three videotapes delivered by her kidnappers to Arab television stations, and the deadline her captors set for killing her passed weeks ago 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.—On the Net:Christian Peacemaker Teams: http://www.cpt.org/—Associated Press reporters Jill Lawless in London; Beth Duff-Brown in Toronto; and Terri Nelson in Richmond, Va., contributed to this report.
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