Islamic radicals in Iraq killed 12 Nepalese hostages, placing video images of the deaths on a Web site Tuesday, in the first mass slaying of foreign prisoners in the spate of kidnappings that insurgents began in April.
The video shows a masked man in military fatigues beheading a hostage who is lying blindfolded on dusty, gray soil. Eleven more prisoners are then killed by single shots to the back of the head as they lie facedown in a row.
"Despite our efforts, this unfortunate incident has taken place," Nepal's ambassador to Qatar, Shyamananda Suman, told the Associated Press. "It is sad."
The men, kidnapped in August while traveling overland from Jordan to jobs in Iraq, were described by their Jordanian employer as cooks and cleaners. Nepal has no troops in Iraq, but the kidnappers had demanded that it stop sending contract workers to the country, according to the BBC. The executions appeared intended to frighten off the many foreigners who come to Iraq to work for U.S.-led forces.
"We have carried out the sentence of God against 12 Nepalis who came from their country to fight the Muslims and to serve the Jews and the Christians . . . believing in Buddha as their God," said a statement posted on the Web site by the Army of Ansar al-Sunna.
The group has claimed several terrorist strikes in northern and western Iraq. Experts believe it to be an outgrowth of Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist militia associated with al Qaeda that held a corner of northern Iraq until being driven out in April 2003 by U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish militias.
The killings more than doubled the number of hostages killed in Iraq since April, when the abduction of foreigners, the display of their images on the Internet or television and, in 11 previous cases, their executions emerged as a prime tactic of some insurgents in Iraq.
It also underscored the peril facing two French journalists who have been threatened with death by their captors.
France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, traveled to Jordan from Egypt on Tuesday, then returned to Egypt in an urgent effort to win support for the release of Georges Malbrunot, 41, and Christian Chesnot, 37. The two were kidnapped on a chronically dangerous road south of Baghdad while heading toward Najaf in mid-August.
Their captors, who call themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq, have threatened to kill the men unless France repeals a ban on Islamic head scarves and other religious apparel in its public schools. The group released a video of the men pleading for the repeal.
French officials refused to change the law but have marshaled a wide variety of Arab and Muslim groups to condemn the use of kidnapping to pursue political goals.
Muslim groups in France that oppose the law joined with the country's secular establishment in calling for the journalists' immediate release. The Islamic group Hamas joined Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and various religious leaders in issuing a public statement of protest, as well.
"It is not in the interests of our cause," Muhammad Bashar Faydi of Iraq's Muslim Scholars Committee, a leading group from the Sunni branch of Islam that vehemently opposes the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, said of the kidnappings. "We can understand your rage over the French law that bans head scarves," Faydi said on the satellite network al-Arabiya, addressing the kidnappers. "But we have a bigger cause, which is the occupation of Iraq."
Many advocates pointed out that France opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has a history of sympathy for Arab causes. French officials saw a glimmer of hope late Monday when the original 48-hour deadline for repeal was extended by 24 hours.
"I am renewing my solemn call for their release," French President Jacques Chirac said Tuesday in Russia, where he was attending a previously scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, two other opponents of the U.S.-led war. "Everything will be done to secure their release."
Meanwhile, a political aide to Moqtada Sadr said the rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric was serious about renouncing armed insurrection in favor of joining Iraq's nascent political process.
"Now, we concentrate on the necessity of political action," Ali Yassiri said in a telephone interview, referring to elections set for January. "The Sadr movement has many intellectuals and academics and educated elements. The main objective is to make the U.S. occupation withdraw and to cooperate with the other movements and any other side that adopts a political project."
For the second time in two days, Yassiri indicated that Sadr would convert his militia, the Mahdi Army, to peaceful purposes. He was speaking less than a week after the end of a three-week battle with U.S. forces in the southern city of Najaf that killed hundreds of the militia's fighters.
It remained unclear whether Yassiri spoke for Sadr, a mercurial and lately reclusive figure whose many aides sometimes contradict one another.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered conflicting assessments of Sadr's intentions. One said intelligence suggested that despite the peace rhetoric and a cease-fire in Sadr City, a vast Shiite slum in Baghdad, the militia was re-arming.
But another American, a diplomat in Baghdad, said Sadr had shown signs of being serious about turning to politics: "It's better than being chased all over the place. It's the only logical place for him to be." The diplomat declined to be identified on grounds that Iraqi officials were in sensitive negotiations with the Sadr camp.
In a bid to make peace more attractive, a group of senior Iraqi officials spent much of the day with tribal leaders of Sadr City, promising hundreds of millions of dollars in investment if the area was calm enough to ensure workers' safety.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, said the government had allocated $115 million for rebuilding and improving the slum, where boulevards are piled with trash and open sewers turn dusty streets to green mud. In addition, "we have requested from the donating countries and the United States $150 million," Allawi told the gathering of about 100 Sadr City sheiks.
Ministers of health, housing, public works and education also promised improvements, provided the fighting ends. "We want to hire a lot of people, but they cannot go into the city," said Baghdad Mayor Alaa Mahmood Tamimi, who referred to an $85 million sewer project. "We can hire 30,000 contract workers if the security situation improves."
The sheiks appeared generally receptive to the plan, according a pool reporter who attended the meeting.
"After suffering and tyranny, it is time to start a new white page that is based on frankness," said Muhsin Mousawi, a local sheik, reading from a letter he said represented the opinions all of the tribal leaders. "What has happened is the overuse of violence without any legal basis. We did not come here to say to you our conditions, but to give our opinions and suggestions so we can participate in the construction of Sadr City."
"We need to employ the young men in order to fill their spare time, which the saboteurs could make use of," Mousawi said.
Correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran and special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.