BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – U.S.-led forces freed three Christian peace activists held hostage in Iraq on Thursday in an operation mounted two weeks after the kidnappers tortured and killed their American colleague.
Canadians Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden and 74-year-old British pacifist Norman Kember from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) were snatched in west Baghdad in November.
The tortured body of American Tom Fox was found dumped in the capital two weeks ago.
Officials declined to say where in Iraq the operation took place or whether there were any casualties or arrests made.
“Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden and Jim Loney were freed early this morning … in a planned operation mounted by the Multinational Forces in Iraq,” British embassy spokeswoman Lisa Glover said, declining to give further details.
The operation was the result of months of work by special police teams, diplomats and the Iraqi authorities, Glover said.
News of the release came amid further insurgent violence in Iraq. At least 15 people were killed, most of them policemen, when a suicide car bomber blew himself up outside the major crimes unit headquarters in Baghdad.
Another car exploded at a market in the southwest of the city, close to a Shi’ite mosque, killing five.
Kember’s wife Pat said she was “delighted” by news of their release. “It’s very good news, but I’m just waiting for more details. I can’t say any more,” she told Reuters.
Kember, Sooden 32, and Loney, 41, were being checked by doctors and were in the care of consular staff, Glover said.
“Mr. Kember is in reasonable condition and he is now in the Green Zone,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, referring to Baghdad’s diplomatic and government compound.
“The two Canadians had to have hospital treatment.”
Straw said: “It was an operation led by the Multinational Force which involved British forces.”
It was never clear throughout the four months how far the kidnappers, who demanded the release of Iraqi prisoners, were linked to the insurgency among the Sunni Arab minority and how far it was a criminal plot. No ransom demand was made public.
Previous hostages, including Briton Kenneth Bigley in 2004, have been beheaded on video by al Qaeda-linked groups within weeks of their capture once demands have not been met.
Fears for the safety of the three had mounted after Fox’s body, showing signs of torture and with a gunshot wound to the head, was found near a railway line in Baghdad on March 10.
Spokeswoman Glover said: “It’s a tragedy that their friend Tom Fox was murdered and is not with them today.”
“We are very glad to hear of their release and waiting to see them,” said Maxine Nash, one of three CPT workers remaining in Baghdad among a tiny number of private foreign organisations.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair congratulated those involved in the operation to rescue the hostages: “The prime minister is delighted by the news. He is particularly pleased for those released and their families,” his office said.
The four were seized four months ago while driving in a part of western Baghdad known as a haven for Sunni Arab rebels. They were heading to meet Muslim clerics. Their group specialises in trying to use Christian principles to defuse conflicts.
The hostages appeared in video tapes released under the name of the hitherto unknown Swords of Truth group.
In a final video released earlier this month, only the three survivors appeared. Fox’s body was found three days later.
More than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Fifty-five foreign hostages are known to have been killed. Two Germans, two Kenyans and American journalist Jill Carroll are still being held.
In Thursday’s suicide car bomb attack, police said the bomber drove up to an outer checkpoint and then blew himself up as his car was being checked for explosives. Fifteen people were killed, 10 of them policemen, and 32 wounded.
Sunni Arab insurgents fighting to topple the U.S.-backed government target Iraqi forces on a daily basis. Thursday’s attack followed two attacks on police stations around Baghdad in the past two days in which 26 people were killed.
The violence has underlined increasingly urgent calls by Washington for politicians to end a deadlock that has stalled formation of a unity government three months after elections.
Officials said party leaders would gather on Saturday after a break for holidays of several days to resume negotiations.
Among issues on the agenda is setting up a National Security Council that some describe as a powerful, parallel administration that could sidestep deadlock on the cabinet.
A surge in sectarian killings has also sparked fears that Iraq may be slipping towards civil war. Gunmen in Baghdad killed at least 15 Shi’ite pilgrims and wounded dozens on Wednesday as they returned home from a major religious festival.