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Iraq: Hostage Crisis Intensifies With Executions Of 12 Nepalese

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he is "appalled and dismayed" by the killing of 12 Nepalese workers by Iraqi militants and is calling for the immediate release of all hostages in Iraq. The brutal executions of the Nepalese men was shown on an Islamist website yesterday. Meanwhile, the fate of two French journalists in Iraq remains unclear. Arab League officials say the militants who are holding them have extended until today their deadline for France to scrap a law banning Muslim head scarves in public schools.

Prague, 1 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The executions of the 12 Nepalese workers marks a dramatic escalation in Iraq's ongoing foreign hostage crisis.

More than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq in recent months. Many have since been released, but some 25 have now been killed, and at least another 20 are still being held, from countries including Bulgaria, Canada, Kenya, India, Turkey, France, Somalia, and Egypt.

In Nepal's capital, Katmandu, hundreds of protesters attacked buildings and clashed with police today. Authorities imposed a curfew in some parts of the capital. The protesters blame Nepalese authorities for doing too little to save the lives of the hostages.

Binod, a neighbor of Ramesh Kadhka, one of the slain Nepalese hostages, said he is outraged by the executions and by the actions of Nepal's government.

"This incident shows that the government has not done anything," Binod said. "The recruitment companies should not have sent them to Iraq, particularly after the government had not given them permission to visit Iraq. This is a very bad incident."

Nepal's Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat said the kidnappers had made no demands nor issued any deadlines, and that "makes it even more shocking."

In a statement, militants from a group called the Army of Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the killings and said the Nepalese were "fighting the Muslims and serving the Jews and the Christians" and "believing in Buddha as their God."

Nepal, an impoverished Hindu country, has sent no troops to Iraq and bans its citizens from working there because of security concerns.

In a separate Iraqi hostage crisis, France is seeking to save the lives of two journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbruno, who were abducted on 19 August. They are being held by a little-known militant group called the Islamic Army of Iraq. The group is demanding that France rescind its recent ban on Islamic head scarves in public schools.
Militants from a group called the Army of Ansar al-Sunna said the Nepalese were "fighting the Muslims and serving the Jews and the Christians" and "believing in Buddha as their God."

"The French public authorities are totally committed and determined to resolve this issue, as I have already said, so that our hostages are released safe and sound," French President Jacques Chirac said. "I want to say that everything will be done to ensure their release."

The Islamic Army of Iraq is believed to be linked to Sunni militants fighting U.S.-led forces in central Iraq. Last week, the same group claimed responsibility for killing another kidnapped journalist, Enzo Baldoni of Italy, after Rome failed to respond to its demand for Italian troops to leave Iraq.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier is on a mission to the Middle East in an effort to secure the release of the two men. He is visiting Jordan and Egypt to explain the new French head-scarf law and to win Arab and Muslim support for the hostages' release.

The diplomatic campaign seems to be yielding results, even from unexpected places.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a representative of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, is asking the kidnappers to release the journalists. Zuhri also praised France's position on Iraq and on the Palestinian issue.

"We ask the Iraqi kidnappers to release the two French hostages," Zuhri said. "These hostages are innocent. France stood with Iraq, refusing to enter the war on Iraq. The French position of the Palestinian issue is one of the most understanding in the West. Therefore, it is important to release those French hostages in Iraq."

The spiritual leader of the Shi'a militant group Hizballah, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, called the kidnappings a "brutal operation on the human level, a bad one on the Islamic level, and a losing one on the political level."

Meanwhile, seven employees of a Kuwaiti firm taken hostage in Iraq on July 21 were freed today. Spokeswoman Rana Abu-Zaineh of the Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company confirmed that the three Kenyans, three Indians, and an Egyptian are now in the company's custody.

Turkish television reported that a Turkish truck driver kidnapped in Iraq earlier this month also was freed today. The Turkish Foreign Ministry could not immediately verify the report.

(wire reports)

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