Australian Prime Minister John Howard retracted his statement on Thursday that a body found in the Iraqi city of Fallujah appeared to be that of kidnapped British aid worker Margaret Hassan.
“The body has not been returned by those who killed her,” Howard told reporters when questioned further on the issue before leaving for Chile and a meeting of leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
Earlier in the day Howard had told parliament that a body found in Fallujah by the U.S. military on Sunday appeared “to have been Margaret’s.”
A British embassy official in Baghdad told Reuters it had not been confirmed whether the body was Hassan.
“We are urgently seeking clarification of the identity of the body,” the official said.
British officials say they believe Hassan was the blindfolded woman seen being shot in the head by a hooded militant on a video obtained but not aired by the Arab television station Al-Jazeera. She would be the first foreign woman to die in the wave of kidnappings in Iraq. No group has claimed responsibility. The 59-year-old Hassan, director of CARE International in Iraq, was abducted in Baghdad on Oct. 16.
The Times newspaper in Britain reported in its Thursday editions that a mutilated corpse of a Western woman found by U.S. Marines in Fallujah was being DNA tested to see if it was the remains of Hassan.
The Times reported that the disemboweled body, with its hands and lower legs cut off, had been found in west Fallujah on Sunday. It said the woman who photographed the body said the Marine unit was “80 percent” convinced it was Hassan.
Political leaders and relatives expressed shock and anger over the fate of Hassan, who was renowned for her 30 years of work in Iraq, distributing medicine, food and supplies to Iraqis suffering under the sanctions of the 1990s.
In Ireland, where Hassan was born, hundreds of mourners packed a church Wednesday to pay final respects.
British and Irish leaders condemned the apparent killing and the European Union said it would make relief efforts in Iraq almost impossible.
'Dangerous place to work'
Christian Berthiaume of the World Food Program, one of many relief organizations that have drastically scaled back operations in Iraq because of security concerns, said Hassan’s death would make matters worse.
“That’s really a shock,” Berthiaume said. “It’s a very dangerous place to work, unfortunately, for relief workers.”
“If it’s true, this is outrageous,” said Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Amman. She said Hassan “worked even under the most difficult times in Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people, for 30 years.”
WFP and other U.N. agencies pulled their international staff out of Iraq after a deadly bomb attack on United Nations offices in Baghdad last year. Many other groups have done the same, leaving local employees in place to carry on work.
CARE said it was in mourning for Hassan. The group closed its Iraq operations after Hassan was abducted.
Children among mourners
In the southwest Ireland village of Kenmare, where Hassan’s sister Geraldine Riney lives, hundreds turned out to mourn Hassan at a joint Catholic-Protestant service.
The Rev. Tom Crean, the Catholic parish priest of Kenmare, told mourners — among them more than 100 children in their Kenmare school uniforms — that her killing represented “an unspeakable loss.”
Hassan’s four brothers and sisters said Tuesday that they believe she is dead. “Our hearts are broken,” they said in a statement. “Those who are guilty of this atrocious act, and those who support them, have no excuses.”
A British, Iraqi and Irish citizen, Hassan had lived in Iraq for 32 years and was married to an Iraqi engineer, Tahseen Ali Hassan. She served as CARE director there since 1991.
On Sunday, Marines found the mutilated body of what they believe was a Western woman on a street in Fallujah during the U.S. assault on the insurgent stronghold. The body, clothed in what appeared to be a purple, velour dress, was wrapped in a blanket, with a blood-soaked black cloth nearby. As of Tuesday night, the U.S. command said the body had not been identified.
What kidnappers demanded
Hassan’s captors had issued several videotapes of her pleading for her life and asking for Britain to withdraw its troops from Iraq and for female Iraqi prisoners to be freed. Ireland, which has been critical of the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq, issued several high-profile appeals for her freedom.
Irish President Mary McAleese called Hassan “remarkable in her love for and devotion to the Iraqi people.”
“It is a cruel irony that Margaret’s captors did not show her the same humanity and kindness which she demonstrated daily to those around her,” she added.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he shares the family’s “abhorrence at the cruel treatment of someone who devoted so many years of their life to helping the people of Iraq.”
Hassan was the most prominent of more than 170 foreigners kidnapped in Iraq this year. At least 34 have been killed. Besides Hassan, eight foreign women have been abducted. Seven have been released. Teresa Borcz Khalifa, 54, a Polish-born longtime resident of Iraq who was seized last month, is now the only one whose fate remains unknown.