The aid group CARE International has pleaded with the captors of Margaret Hassan, the head of the agency's operations in Iraq, to release her. Hassan's husband also made a public plea on Arab television.
Hassan, who holds British, Iraqi and Irish citizenship and has spent nearly half her life delivering food and medicine in Iraq, appeared in a video released Friday and begged Britain to help save her by withdrawing its troops.
“CARE joins with the many Iraqi people who Mrs. Hassan has helped over her decades of charitable work in Iraq in calling for her immediate release,” CARE said in a statement. “Her tremendous dedication to the Iraqi people has been demonstrated through overwhelming public support in Iraq for her release.”
Her Iraqi husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, on Saturday begged for the kidnappers to free her “in the name of Islam.”
“It hurts to watch my wife cry,” Tahseen Hassan said on Al-Arabiya television. “This scene has saddened and worried her friends and loved ones. I plead with you, in the name of Islam and Arabism — while we are in the most sacred Islamic month — that my wife and beloved return to me.”
The wrenching, televised statement by Hassan, 59 — delivered between sobs — puts new political pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government a day after it agreed to a U.S. request to transfer 850 British soldiers from southern Iraq to the Baghdad area to free U.S. forces for new offensives against insurgents.
“Please help me, please help me,” Hassan said in a grainy videotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera television. “This might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr. Blair to take the troops out of Iraq and not to bring them here to Baghdad.”
In a separate hostage-taking incident, Iraqi militants beheaded a man, presumably Iraqi, who said he worked for the U.S. military in the northern city of Mosul for the past 10 months, according to a videotape posted on Islamic Web sites Saturday.
Pressure on Blair
Blair’s decision to redeploy the troops drew strong criticism from within his Labor Party, and Hassan’s desperate appeal is likely to stoke opposition among the British public, whose support for the Iraq mission has never been as strong as that in the United States.
“That’s why people like Mr. Bigley and myself are being caught,” Hassan said, referring to British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was beheaded this month. “And maybe we will die like Mr. Bigley. Please, please, I beg of you.”
Iraqi extremists have often subjected foreign hostages to such humiliating performances, exploiting their agony to win concessions from their employers or governments, stir up opposition to U.S.-led operations in the country and win recruits from within the Muslim world.
Unlike most previous hostage tapes, however, this one featured no hooded gunmen, no banners identifying the militant group and no explicit demands for the captive’s freedom. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based station, said it received the tape Friday but did not say where or how.
In an interview with Fox News, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called the Hassan kidnapping a “tragedy” but added: “Nobody is going to ... give in to their demands.”
“We have to remain very strong and adamant that we should bring the terrorists to justice,” Allawi said.
Series of kidnappings
Hassan, who is married to an Iraqi, was seized by gunmen Tuesday in western Baghdad as she rode to work in her car. She appeared in the tape Friday wearing what appeared to be a robe or a house dress. A tape released on the day of her abduction showed her wearing a white blouse with a round collar.
Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert in Washington, noted that Hassan was abducted after Britain and the United States refused to release female prisoners, as demanded by Bigley’s kidnappers.
Militants have kidnapped at least seven other foreign women over the past six months, all of whom were released. In September, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices; they were freed three weeks later.
By contrast, at least 33 foreign male hostages have been killed, including three Americans who were beheaded. Insurgents, nevertheless, have targeted Iraqi women working for the Americans or their allies, including a deadly ambush Thursday on a bus carrying female airline employees on their way to work at the Baghdad airport.
Dawoud Abdullah of the British Islamic Council told Al-Jazeera from London that his organization was making “official and unofficial contacts” to try to win Hassan’s release.
“We are disappointed. We hope that it is not a Muslim group that is behind this act, especially that this woman has done a lot for Iraq throughout the years,” Abdullah said. “A Muslim does not repay good with evil.”
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described Friday’s videotape as “extremely distressing” and called for Hassan’s immediate release.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern noted that Hassan “is a person who has selflessly worked for the benefit of her Iraqi fellow citizens and fought for the rights of the Iraqi people for many years.”
Hassan has done aid work in Iraq for nearly 30 years. She joined CARE soon after it began operations in Iraq in 1991, managing a staff of 60 Iraqis who run nutrition, health and water programs throughout the country.
She was a vocal opponent of international sanctions on Iraq and warned British lawmakers before last year’s U.S.-led invasion that a conflict could produce a humanitarian crisis in the country, which was already severely weakened by the embargoes.
Hassan is the most prominent of the more than 150 foreigners to have been kidnapped in Iraq. She is widely known for her charity work in the Middle East and was naturalized as an Iraqi after her marriage.
The latest killing of a hostage in Iraq, posted on Islamic Web sites Saturday, was claimed by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, a group that claimed responsibility for beheading a Turkish driver and an Arab Shiite Muslim in two tapes that surfaced earlier this month and 12 Nepalese construction workers, whose killings were shown in a video posted Aug. 31.
The authenticity of the latest tape and the claim of responsibility could not be independently verified.
Speaking in Arabic, the man identified himself as Seif Adnan Kanaan, saying he worked as a vehicle mechanic and beverage deliverer for U.S. forces based at Mosul airport.
One militant described Kanaan as a “crusader spy recruited by the American troops to follow and carry information about the mujahedeen in Mosul.” The militant also accused the captive of cursing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Shortly before he was killed, the hostage said, “I am telling anybody who wants to work with Americans to not work with them. I found out that the mujahadeen have very accurate information (and) strong intelligence about everything. They are stronger than I thought.”
In other hostage developments Friday:
- A Turkish welder kidnapped last week escaped from his captors after they left a door open, an uncle said Friday. The man made it to Iraqi and U.S. authorities and called his family in Turkey on Wednesday.
- Macedonia confirmed Friday that three Macedonian contractors kidnapped in Iraq were beheaded by their captors. Al-Jazeera aired video showing two of the men on Monday, but investigators examining the full tape said it was clear all three men were killed. The three Macedonians, employed by a construction company, were abducted Aug. 21.