Three Abducted Peace Activists Rescued in Iraq

James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden and Norman Kember
From left to right, Canadian nationals James Loney, 41; Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32; and British national Norman Kember, 74. They were abducted in November 2005 in Iraq. (AFP/Getty Images)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 23 -- British and U.S. troops rescued three kidnapped Christian peace activists early Thursday in a military operation that was based on information provided by two men detained only three hours earlier by U.S. forces, according to a U.S. military official.

The freed captives -- Norman Kember, 74, of London, and James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both of Canada -- were members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a Chicago- and Toronto-based group that advocates nonviolence and is opposed to the war in Iraq. They were kidnapped in Baghdad on Nov. 26 along with a fourth member of their group, Tom Fox of Clear Brook, Va.

Concern about the well-being of the three abductees intensified after Fox's body was discovered on a trash-strewn street in Baghdad two weeks ago, shot multiple times with his hands bound.

The freeing of the hostages came during a day in which at least 44 people were killed and scores wounded in a rash of car bombings, suicide bombings and roadside explosions, many of which targeted Iraqi police units in and around Baghdad.

Circumstances of the rescue operation, which was spearheaded by the British, were being closely held.

Doug Pritchard, co-director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, said in a televised news conference in Toronto that no shots were fired and no captors were present at the time of the rescue. He declined to divulge the source of his information. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw later confirmed the absence of gunfire.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said at a regular briefing in Baghdad that the men had been abducted by a "kidnapping cell" and were in a house in western Baghdad. That information came from two men detained about three hours before the operation who provided "actionable intelligence about the location" of the house, he said.

The captives "were bound, they were together, there were no kidnappers in the area," Lynch told reporters.

British Defense Secretary John Reid said the 5 a.m. operation had been "several" weeks in the planning. A statement by the British Embassy in Baghdad said the raid was the culmination "of work over the last few months by the U.K., Canadian and U.S. embassies and special police teams, in coordination with Iraqi security forces."

The statements left many questions unanswered. It was unclear whether the kidnappers -- who claimed to belong to a little-known group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade -- had been tipped off about the raid, had been paid to leave or simply left the men unguarded. The group had accused the men of being Western spies and had threatened to kill them unless all Iraqi prisoners were released.

British officials refused to answer questions about the raid. It could not be learned whether any of the abductors was arrested or whether a ransom was paid.

Pritchard said he did not know whether the freeing of the men came after any negotiations.

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