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Britain confirms Western hostages freed in Iraq

Norman Kember, a British hostage, and two Canadian hostages have been released as a result of a multinational force operation.
None | By Robin Millard (AFP), London
PUBLISHED ON MAR 23, 2006 08:41 PM IST

Two Canadians and a British hostage held in Iraq were freed early Thursday in a multinational military operation that took weeks of planning, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

"The three hostages -- Norman Kember, a British hostage, and two Canadian hostages -- have been released as a result of a multinational force operation which took place earlier today," he said in an impromptu statement to BBCtelevision.

"British forces were involved in this operation. It follows weeks and weeks of very careful work by our military and coalition personnel in Iraq and many civilians as well.

Canadians Harmeet Sooden, 32, and Jim Loney, 41, and Kember, 74, were from the peace group Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) and were abducted on November 26 along with American Tom Fox, 54, who was killed by their captors two weeks ago.

The peace activists' abduction was claimed by a group calling itself the Brigades of the Swords of Righteousness which threatened to kill them unless all Iraqi prisoners were released.

The surviving trio were found west of Baghdad, US Colonel John Snow said earlier in the Iraqi capital. Snow declined to say who found them or how they were released.

A Downing Street spokesman said Prime Minister Tony Blair "is delighted by the news. He is particularly pleased for those released and their families".

Straw refused to go into details about the operation, but noted that their release was tempered by the death of Fox, which he said "a matter of great sorrow to everybody".

He said Kember was in a "reasonable condition" and recovering in Baghdad's secure "green zone" but that Loney and Sooden needed hospital treatment.

"I have, on the two occasions I have been to Iraq since Christmas, spoken to the great team that has been involved in trying to secure the release of the hostages," he revealed.

"It is the result of a team effort involving military and civilian personnel from a number of countries, including, let me say, Canadian personnel who I was able to meet when I was in Baghdad last.

"I am delighted we now have a happy ending to this ordeal, for Norman Kember, for his family, for the Canadian hostages and for their families as well."

Straw could not say when Kember would be returning to Britain.

"That's a matter to be decided. What is really important is that Norman Kember and his two Canadian colleagues are safe," he said.

"The really important thing is that this is wonderful news for the family and it is a huge tribute to the professionalism of the multinational forces and the Iraqi forces that they have been able to achieve this result."

BBC television said sources in Baghdad had told them that there was no deal done with the captors and that Kember was at the British embassy.

Straw said he had talked with Kember's wife Pat throughout her husband's ordeal and had spoken to her again since his release.

"It goes without saying that she is absolutely delighted, elated with this news," he said.

The foreign secretary pleaded with the media to give the families involved time and space to absorb the news.

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