BAGHDAD, (AP) – The British Embassy said Sunday it has received a new video showing one of five British hostages seized by gunmen from Iraq’s Finance Ministry nearly two years ago.
The kidnappers have demanded that the U.S. military release the founder of a Shiite militia group blamed for the brazen abductions, while the British have asked that he remain in custody as long as the hostages are not freed, according to one official familiar with the case.
The official declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
The five Britons — a management consultant named Peter Moore and four of his security guards — were seized by heavily armed men in police uniforms in May 2007 from the Finance Ministry. They were driven away toward Baghdad’s Shiite enclave of Sadr City.
The British Embassy confirmed it had received a tape of one of the British hostages but refused to identify him or provide details on how it received the video.
“This is clearly a significant development and we’ll continue to work for the safe release of all the hostages,” embassy spokesman Sean McColm said.
The BBC reported that the hostage in the video is Peter Moore and that he says the five are being treated well. Moore appeared in another video shown in February. The four other captives were security workers for the Montreal-based firm GardaWorld.
The new video was filmed eight days ago, according to its date stamp, the official said, adding that only one unidentified hostage was shown but the British believe all five are fine.
At the time of the kidnapping, Iraqi officials blamed Shiite militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The abductions were believed to be a retaliatory strike for the killing by British forces of the militia’s commander in the southern city of Basra.
However, al-Sadr’s followers have disavowed the kidnapping, and suspicion has fallen on splinter groups that the United States believes are controlled by Iran.
Tehran has repeatedly denied allegations it supports violent groups in Iraq.
The official said members of the U.S.-led coalition believe the abduction was the work of a group known as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, which is one of two major militias operating in Iraq that are believed to be backed by Iran.
The kidnappers have demanded the release of the group’s founder, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite cleric who has been in U.S. custody since March 2007 and negotiations are under way, the official said.
He added that the British have asked the Americans not to release al-Khazali as long as the hostages continue to be held and negotiations were under way.
The U.S. military believes that before his arrest, al-Khazali organized the splinter groups that were responsible for a January 2007 raid on the Karbala provincial headquarters that killed five U.S. soldiers.
Moore, who worked for BearingPoint, a U.S.-based management consulting firm, appeared in a video that was aired on the pan-Arab station Al-Arabiya in February.
At that time, he called on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to accede to the kidnappers’ demand for a trade for Iraqi prisoners. “It’s as simple as that,” he could be heard saying. “It’s a simple exchange of people.”
Al-Arabiya said it received the video from a group calling itself the Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq and offering the five Britons in exchange for nine of their men being held by British forces for the past year.
In December, another video of the hostages called on Britain to pull out all of its forces from Iraq within the next 10 days. It featured what was purported to be one of the captives sitting beneath a sign reading “the Islamic Shiite Resistance in Iraq.” The man was not identified.
That video carried a written statement saying the five had “acknowledged and confessed and detailed the agenda with which they came to steal our wealth under false pretense of being advisers to the Finance Ministry.”
About 4,000 British soldiers remain in Iraq and are scheduled to leave by September, along with some 12,000 U.S. forces, according to the withdrawal schedule recently announced by President Barack Obama.