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Rescuers Vie for Credit

How the CPT Hostages Were Freed

by PATRICK COCKBURN, KEN SENGUPTA And OLIVER DUFF

Irbil, Iraq.

Norman Kember, the British peace activist kidnapped in Iraq, is expected home in two days after being freed with two fellow hostages following an operation by international forces.

It is believed that the location where the three men were held in west Baghdad was traced after information was supplied by Iraqi go-betweens who had established contact with the kidnappers.

British, American, Canadian and Iraqi police and troops were involved in the mission, lasting three weeks, in which mobile calls made by people close to the abductors had been monitored.

Mr Kember, a 74-year-old grandfather, and his Canadian companions from the Christian Peacemaker Teams, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden, were found unguarded in the house four months after their abduction. He is expected back in the UK in two days.

The body of a fourth hostage, 54-year-old American Tom Fox, had been found, with marks of having been tortured, in the Mansour district of Baghdad last month, leading to fears that the others too may have been murdered.

Mr Kember spoke to his wife, Pat, on the telephone following his release. Afterwards, he said at the British embassy in Baghdad: "It’s great to be free. I am looking forward to getting back to the UK." Last night, he was described as being in "reasonable condition".

Speaking at her home in Pinner, north London, Mrs Kember, 72, said that she was "thrilled " and "could not wait to have him back". She said that she had been deluged with calls from friends, relations and the media after the news broke that her husband had been released.

Mr Kember’s two fellow hostages needed hospital treatment. In a telephone conversation with his mother in Canada, Mr Loney said an Iraqi man had led Western forces to the building where he and the others were being held. He described his captors as "basically a criminal gang".

Mr Kember’s brother Ian said: "What’s happened is a wonderful thing and obviously a great relief."

The Rev Robert Gardiner, a family friend, who is a minister at Harrow Baptist Church near the couple’s home, said the murder of Mr Fox meant Mrs Kember "had to face up to the reality that Norman could be next … That distressed her deeply because she was just beginning to hope that sort of thing was not going to happen". He added that she had only been able to watch the videotaped messages taken during his kidnapping for the first time last night.

The raid, at just after 8am Baghdad time (5am GMT), followed the arrest of two suspects at a different address in west Baghdad on Wednesday evening.

There were differing accounts among the "coalition of the willing" about who was most responsible for freeing the hostages. In London, government ministers said that British forces had played a "prominent role" during the rescue mission. The Prime Minister said that he was " delighted" and had spoken on the telephone to the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to thank him for the help given by Canadian troops.

The Defence Secretary, John Reid, said: "The rescue of Norman Kember and his colleagues was by a multi-national force spearheaded by British troops. British troops were involved in a rolling operation which finished at 5am. The British troops played a key role in it but, of course, it involved troops from other nations as well."

British defence sources insisted it was they who had gathered the intelligence for the rescue, 12 miles from Baghdad.

However in Baghdad itself, a US Major-General, Rick Lynch, asserted that one of the two suspects arrested by American forces supplied vital information.

"We conducted an assault on the house, and inside the house we found three hostages, in good condition. There were no kidnappers there at the time. The three hostages were by themselves," he said.

Iraqi sources said that the country’s interior ministry had played a significant role in the rescue through the use of informers. One insistedit would have been impossible for Western forces to have found the location of the kidnap house without Iraqi help.

Three days after the kidnapping on 26 November last year, video footage of the hostages was released by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which accused the hostages of being spies.

Appeals for the release of the hostages were made on Arabic TV by Mrs Kember, the jailed radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada and former British Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.

The veteran peace campaigner Bruce Kent, a friend of Mr Kember’s, said he " fell out of bed" when rung by a reporter with the news. "I was amazed, I just burst into tears," he said. "Tom Fox’s death was the worst moment of it all, bringing back thoughts of all the terrible executions and beheadings from before."

In a statement, the Christian Peacemaker Teams in North America said that their "hearts are filled with joy" at the release of their members.

It said: "They went motivated by a passion for justice and peace to live out a non-violent alternative in a nation wracked by armed conflict … We believe the illegal occupation of Iraq by multi-national forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping and so much pain and suffering in Iraq. The occupation must end."