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Iraq: Hostage Crisis Escalates Amid Disputes Over Responses To Kidnappers

Islamabad today denounced the killing by Iraqi militants of two Pakistani nationals abducted last week. The deaths of the Pakistanis suggests the lengths to which the hostage takers are willing to go as they seek to use kidnappings to pressure foreign governments to change their policies on Iraq. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera has broadcast videotape that purports to show yet another foreign hostage -- a Somali truck driver who is also being threatened with execution.

Prague, 29 July 2004 -- "It's a sad day for the people of Pakistan. It is a sad day for the families and the entire nation. This is plain savagery. The captors have killed two innocent Pakistanis. [Those who were kidnapped] had committed no crime. But these people have committed a crime against Pakistan, against Islam and humanity and against the people of Iraq."

That was Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan denouncing on 29 July the killing of two Pakistani hostages by militants in Iraq.

He spoke just days after the families of the two men made impassioned public pleas for the militants to release their loved ones.

Nazai Khan, the eldest daughter of hostage Raja Azad Khan, begged for the safe return of her father, a maintenance engineer: "My father is innocent man and his name was not involved in any political circumstances in Iraq. So, please release him on the basis of humanity. We both are Muslims. We have same religion, same prophet, same Allah. So please release him."

But the pleas were ignored by the hostage takers, who had promised to kill the two men if the Kuwait-based firm employing them did not halt its operations in Iraq.

Yesterday, the kidnappers sent a videotape showing the execution of the hostages to the Arabic-language satellite-television network Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based station described the tape as too gruesome to broadcast.

The fate of the two Pakistanis contrasts with that of another Pakistani, who was freed by a different group of hostage takers in June. In that case, the militants released their captive after discovering he was a Muslim and after his mother publicly pleaded for his life.

The hostage takers this week showed the lengths to which they are prepared to go in using kidnappings to pressure foreign companies and governments to stay out of Iraq.

The kidnappers of the two Pakistanis had demanded, among other things, that Islamabad send no troops to Iraq as part of the multinational security force. Pakistan has previously said it will only send troops if requested by the Iraqi government and if other Muslim nations also do so.

Since April, militant groups have abducted scores of foreigners in Iraq and moved the bargaining over their fates to center stage in the ongoing insurgency. The militants have switched tactics from trying to capture high-value targets like soldiers to abducting just about any foreigners they can get their hands on.

Recent captives have included two Jordanian truck drivers whose families this week also pleaded publicly for their lives. The drivers now look likely to be released after their Jordanian employer said he would end some business activities in Iraq in line with the kidnappers' demands. The company also came under pressure from the hostages' relatives -- some of whom threatened to behead the firm's executive director if their family members were harmed.

Emotions around the kidnappings run high. Though scores of hostages have been released since April, seven have been brutally murdered. At least 13 people are still being held captive.

The fates of at least two other hostages -- U.S. soldier Keith Matthew Maupin and a Bulgarian truck driver -- are uncertain. Militants have issued a videotape of what they say is the killing of Maupin, but there is no independent confirmation he is the man pictured. A body presumed to be that of the Bulgarian truck driver was found but has yet to be officially identified. The body of another Bulgarian hostage known to have been killed was repatriated today.

The hostage taking is fueling highly charged arguments among countries involved in Iraq over the best way to deal with the kidnappers' demands.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer enraged Manila this week by saying its withdrawal of all 44 of its troops from Iraq last week to spare the life of truck driver Angelo dela Cruz would only encourage future kidnappings:

"There's no doubt that the decision by the Spanish to withdraw after the Madrid bombings and the withdrawal by the Philippines recently as a result of the kidnapping and the threatened execution of the Philippines national has given greater strength to the terrorists," Downer said.

The Filipino government responded by calling in the Australian ambassador to Manila for talks yesterday. Officials have not divulged the nature of the talks, but media reports say they were to express anger over Downer's remarks.

Amid such disputes, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is partly using a trip this week to Europe and the Mideast to call on allied governments to stand firm before hostage takers' demands.

Visiting Hungary, the first stop on his itinerary, Powell said on 27 July that America's allies in Iraq must "not get weak in the knees."

Powell said in an interview on Hungarian public television: "We must not allow insurgents -- those that will use bombs and kidnappings and beheadings -- to triumph. I think the Hungarian people understand this. That's why your troops are there now, and I think your parliament, your parliamentarians, will understand this as well."

Hungary has had no hostages taken to date, but the government does face regular opposition calls to withdraw its 350 troops deployed in Iraq.

Powell has since gone on to visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and will continue to Kuwait, Bosnia, and Poland. Most of these countries are on the front line of the Iraq crisis.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have all pledged support to the new Iraqi government, and hundreds of their civilian nationals are already working there on reconstruction projects.

Poland has 2,400 of its troops in Iraq, the largest deployment after the United States and Britain. The Polish government, which has lost troops in battles with insurgents but not yet faced a hostage crisis, has repeatedly said it will not be forced from Iraq by terrorism.

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