U.S. and British forces stormed a house and freed three Christian peace activists Thursday without firing a shot, ending a four-month ordeal during which an American in the group was killed and dumped along a railroad track.
The U.S. ambassador and the top American military spokesman held out hope the operation on the outskirts of Baghdad could lead to a break in the captivity of American reporter Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for The Christian Science Monitor who was abducted Jan. 7.
The military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, said the 8 a.m. rescue of the Briton and two Canadians from a “kidnapping cell” was based on information divulged by a man during interrogation only three hours earlier. That man was captured by U.S. forces on Wednesday night.
A senior Iraqi military officer told The Associated Press, however, that the operation had been under way for two days in the Abu Ghraib suburb west of Baghdad, site of the notorious prison. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position, said U.S. and British forces refused to give him other details.
Canadians also played role
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canadian forces also took part in the rescue operation, although their role was unclear.
No kidnappers were present when the troops broke into the house, where the captives were discovered with their hands tied, Lynch said.
“They were bound, they were together, there were no kidnappers in the areas,” he told a news briefing.
The freed men were Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and Briton Norman Kember, 74. The men — members of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams — were kidnapped Nov. 26 along with an American colleague, Tom Fox, 54.
Fox’s body was found this month, shot and dumped in western Baghdad.
“We remember with tears Tom Fox,” group co-director Doug Pritchard said in Toronto. “We had longed for the day when all four men would be released together. Our gladness today is bittersweet by the fact that Tom is not alive to join his colleagues in the celebration.”
3 released from hospital
The three freed members of Christian Peacemaker Teams were taken to a hospital for observation in Baghdad but were released in good condition, the organization said from the Iraqi capital.
British Embassy spokeswoman Lisa Glover said the men would be flown out of Baghdad in the next few days. She said Kember was in “reasonable condition” and spent the day “relaxing and talking to British authorities.”
Loney’s brother, Ed, told CBC television that his mother had spoken with James on the phone and that he sounded “fantastic” though “he’s lost quite a bit of weight.”
“He’s alert and he was asking how we were doing and said he was sorry for the whole situation,” Ed Loney said. “My mom said, ’Don’t worry about it — just get home and we’ll talk about all that stuff when you get here.’ “
‘Seeing the light of day ... ’
He told CNN that he later spoke directly with his brother, who was “having a lovely chicken dinner with potatoes and a nice soup” and “told me about being rescued and seeing the light of day and smelling the outside air.”
Ed Loney also said his brother told him he was well taken care of.
“He was always warm and always fed and things like that. He was more worried about boredom. ... I think that was probably the worst part of it, from what he said.”
Long presence in Iraq
The Christian Peacemaker Teams volunteers have been in Iraq since October 2002, investigating allegations of abuse against Iraqi prisoners by coalition forces.
The kidnapped men were shown as prisoners in several videos, the most recent a silent clip dated Feb. 28 in which Loney, Kember and Sooden appeared without Fox, whose body was found March 10.
The previously unknown Swords of Righteousness Brigades claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
“As we study who could conduct these kinds of operations there seems to be a kidnapping cell that has been robust over the last several months in conducting these kind of kidnappings,” Lynch said.
While many insurgent groups and the al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist organization have kidnapped and often killed foreigners in Iraq, there also is a heavy criminal element involved in such crimes. Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped for ransom and some Westerners are believed to have been grabbed by those criminal gangs as well.
Often, it is believed, kidnappers take hostages only for the purposes of selling them into captivity to larger, more organized criminal gangs or insurgent organizations.
Nine months since last hostage freed
The last hostage to be freed in a military operation was Douglas Wood, an Australian rescued in west Baghdad by U.S. and Iraqi forces on June 15, 2005, after 47 days in captivity.
Lynch said there was no new information on Carroll that “I can discuss at this time.” But, he said: “There are other operations that continue probably as a result of what we’re finding at this time. So you’ve got to give us the opportunity to work through that.”
Carroll has appeared in three videotapes delivered by her kidnappers to Arab television stations, and the deadline her captors set for killing her passed weeks ago without word about her fate.
“My expectation and hope is that the released hostages and the associated activities, in terms of information gathered, could help us bring about her release as well,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview with Fox News.