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.
"We are convinced the reason they've been alive so long is because of their commitment to bring peace and justice to Iraq," he said.
All four of the men were "motivated by a passion for justice and peace, to live out a nonviolent alternative in a nation racked by armed conflict."
The men had appeared in three videos released by their captors. The last, which aired March 7 on al-Jazeera television, did not show Fox, which raised an alarm about his well-being. Two days later his body was found, heightening concern for the fate of the other three.
"We've certainly gone through a roller coaster of emotions these four months," Pritchard said.
Loney's brother Ed said the family had talked to him. "We're elated. We're really happy that this was resolved peacefully," he told CBC radio in Canada, according to the Reuters news agency. "He's lost quite a bit of weight. . . . My mom talked to him first, and she said he sounded fantastic. He was alert and was asking how we were doing. He said he was kind of sorry about the whole situation."
Straw said he was "delighted that now we have a happy ending to this terrible ordeal."
"There were four hostages captured originally -- including one, an American, Mr. Fox -- and it's a matter of great sorrow to everybody that he was killed," Straw said.
A Western official in Baghdad said in December that 425 foreigners had been kidnapped in Iraq since March 2003 and that 18 percent had been killed. Of 40 Americans kidnapped, 10 had been killed, the official said. At the time, the fate of Fox was unknown.
Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for the Christian Science Monitor who was abducted Jan. 7 in Baghdad, is still missing. She was last seen in a video broadcast Feb. 9 by the private Kuwaiti television station al-Rai.
Meanwhile, 26 people, including 15 policemen, were killed and 32 people were wounded when a powerful car bomb exploded about noon Thursday near the headquarters of the Baghdad police department's major crime unit in the central part of the capital, police said.
Earlier, a roadside bomb exploded at a police checkpoint near the unit's former headquarters in western Baghdad, killing one policeman and wounding five people.
Another car bomb was detonated by remote control near a Shiite mosque in western Baghdad, killing two people and injuring six, according to Lt. Col. Muhammed Abdulkadhum of the Baghdad police. Hospital records listed six dead and 31 wounded in the incident.
A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in south-central Baghdad killed three policemen and wounded seven people, and a car bomb targeting a police patrol in central Baghdad killed four policemen and a civilian and wounded eight people, police said.
In all, 23 police officers were killed in the Baghdad attacks. At least seven people were killed in violence elsewhere in Iraq on Thursday, news services reported.
Correspondent Kevin Sullivan in London and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.