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Talks Begin To Free Truck Drivers Held Hostage In Iraq

Al-Sadr fighters Talks have begun in Baghdad to try and free seven foreign truck drivers held hostage and threatened with execution. As RFE/RL reports, the drivers are among at least 24 foreigners captured or missing in Iraq, most of them by groups demanding that foreign companies or troops leave the country. At least seven hostages abducted so far in Iraq have been brutally murdered.

31 July 2004 -- The talks to free the seven men are taking place behind closed doors. A senior Iraqi tribal leader mediating on behalf of the kidnappers is meeting with representative of the hostages' Kuwaiti employer.

Sheikh Hisham al-Dulaymi said he's hoping for a successful outcome to his talks: "Negotiations will start between me and the Kuwaiti company on the release of the seven hostages -- the Egyptian, three Indians, and three Kenyans -- as I was authorized to negotiate their release. The Kuwaiti company expressed readiness to negotiate and sent today its representative Mehdi Saleh and sent me a fax authorizing him to negotiate."

The seven were seized about 10 days ago by an Iraqi militant group calling itself Holders of the Black Banners.

The kidnappers had threatened to kill one of the hostages yesterday unless the men's transport firm stopped doing business in Iraq.

But India's junior minister for external affairs, Edappakath Ahamed, said today that the militants had extended their deadline by 24 hours as talks on the men's release continue.

He said the Indian envoy to Oman is being sent to Baghdad to help with negotiations: "It has been decided to depute Talmiz Ahmad, our ambassador in Muscat, for this purpose. Mr. Ahmad is an experienced diplomat and has been the official spokesperson of the ministry. In addition to having been the head of the Gulf and Haj division, he is an Arabic speaker.... We understand that ambassador Ahmad is already on his way and is expected to reach Baghdad either later [this] evening or at the latest by [tomorrow] morning."

Meanwhile, relatives of four Jordanian drivers also being held in Iraq say they have received phone calls from the men's kidnappers.

Muhammad Hassan Abu Jafaar said a militant leader phoned him last night and promised that his brother would be released today.

He said this was because the militants found out the drivers were not transporting cargo for U.S. troops. Walid Kheir Khulaifat said he also got a call promising his brother would be released soon.

A militant group in Iraq said on 29 July that it was holding the four Jordanians to put pressure on their transport company to stop cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq.

Also today, a relative of a Turkish driver abducted in Iraq earlier this month said he has been freed after promising his abductors that he would not return to the country.

Mehmet Dayar's niece, Jihan Dayar, said he was released in Mosul and has returned to Turkey.

(international news agencies)