Kidnapping halts aid group's work in Iraq

Posted in Other | 20-Oct-04 | Source: Guardian

Iraqi CARE employees react outside the headquarters of the humanitarian agency in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Oct 20, 2004.

Care International suspended operations in Iraq today after gunmen seized the British woman who ran the humanitarian organisation's work in the country.

The victim's Iraqi husband said the kidnappers had not contacted the family or her employer.

Margaret Hassan, who holds British, Irish and Iraqi citizenships, was seized early yesterday on her way to work in western Baghdad after gunmen blocked her route and dragged the driver and a companion from the car, her husband said.

Ms Hassan, who is in her early 60s, is among the most widely known humanitarian officials in the Middle East and is the most high-profile figure targeted in the wave of kidnappings that has swept Iraq in recent months.

The Arab television station al-Jazeera broadcast a brief video showing Ms Hassan, wearing a white blouse and appearing tense, sitting in a room with bare white walls. An editor at the station, which is based in Qatar, said the tape contained no audio. It did not identify what group was holding her and contained no demand for her release.

Iraqi officials refused to comment on the case, citing the need for security in order to protect her life.

Her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, told al-Jazeera his wife had received no threats and that the kidnappers had contacted no one with demands. "Nothing like this has happened before because Care is a humanitarian organisation and she has served the Iraqi people for 30 years," he said.

Ms Hassan has helped to supply medicines and other humanitarian aid in Baghdad, where she has lived for three decades, and spoken out about Iraqis' suffering under international sanctions during the 1990s.

Early today Care Australia, which coordinates the international agency's Iraq operations, announced it had suspended operations because of Ms Hassan's abduction, but said staff would not be evacuated. It is unclear how many non-Iraqis work for Care in Iraq.

Many non-governmental organisations began withdrawing international staff after attacks on foreigners and their institutions began in earnest in the summer of 2003.

"Our staff are not operating currently there. They are certainly not working there now, in light of the current situation," Robert Glasser, Care Australia's chief executive officer, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

The kidnappings have added to the pressure on US and Iraqi forces already struggling to combat a violent insurgency by Sunnis in central and northern areas of the country.

US officials are trying to train and equip Iraqis to assume a greater security role. However, the American general in charge of protecting Baghdad told reporters yesterday that the city was still far short of the numbers of Iraqi policemen needed to secure it, and the force would not be up to strength in time for national elections in January.

Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the US army's 1st Cavalry Division, said Baghdad needed 25,000 police. The city currently has 15,000 police - most of whom have had just eight weeks of training.

Militants have kidnapped at least seven other women over the past six months; all were later released. Last month two Italian aid workers, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices. They were released after three weeks in captivity.

By contrast, at least 30 male hostages have been killed. Ms Hassan's abduction occurred less than two weeks after a video posted on an Islamist website showed the beheading of British hostage Kenneth Bigley.

Care said Ms Hassan was born in Britain, but the British and Irish foreign offices said she was born in Ireland, which is not part of the US-led coalition in Iraq.

When the kidnappers sent the tape to al-Jazeera, they said they had abducted a "British aid worker", according to the station.

The British government is considering a US request to shift some of the country's 9,000 soldiers from the relative peace of southern Iraq to areas south of Baghdad, presumably to free US troops for an all-out assault on the insurgent bastion of Falluja.

Astrid van Genderen Stort, spokeswoman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said it was up to each non-governmental organisation to decide whether or not to keep staff in Iraq.

"The kidnapping of the Italian and Iraqi women only a while ago should have alerted others even more as to the dangers of operating in Iraq," Ms van Genderen Stort said.

A suicide car bomber today injured two US soldiers and two Iraqi policemen along the main road leading to Baghdad's international airport, according to US military and Iraqi officials.

The court martial of an army reservist charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners was expected to begin today. Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, 38, is expected to plead guilty on four counts in a plea bargain that drops eight other charges against him, his lawyer has said.

- Associated Press