U.S. and British Troops Free Peace Activists in Iraq

A military operation by U.S. and British troops frees three Christian peace activists in rural Iraq, ending the four-month hostage crisis. The fourth hostage, American Tom Fox, was found shot to death on a Baghdad street earlier this month.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. After four months held hostage in Iraq and the death of one of their colleagues, three members of a Chicago-based Christian peace group are free. U.S.-led forces conducted a raid today to release a 74-year-old Briton and two Canadians. The body of their fellow hostage, 54-year-old American Tom Fox, was found two weeks ago on a Baghdad street. NPR's Anne Garrels has more.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

British officials say weeks of intelligence work paid off. The senior U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Major General Rick Lynch, described the successful dawn raid on a house in west Baghdad where no shots were fired.

Major General RICK LYNCH (Senior U.S. military spokesperson, coalition forces, Baghdad): Inside the house we found the three hostages in good condition. There were no kidnappers there at the time. The three hostages were by themselves.

GARRELS: General Lynch said the key to success was the detention last night of two Iraqis.

Major General LYNCH: These two detainees provided actionable intelligence about the location of the Christian Peacemaker Team hostages.

GARRELS: Lynch says only three hours elapsed from the time coalition commanders got the information to the time the hostages were released.

Major General LYNCH: Five o'clock in the morning, on or about, we got the actionable intelligence. We did some preliminary surveillance. We did some preliminary missions. And then we conducted the hostage rescue at 8:00 in the morning.

GARRELS: Lynch pointedly defended the detentions of Iraqis, which have been widely questioned, and which the Christian Peacemakers were in Iraq to deplore.

Major General LYNCH: We talk all the time about our detention operations, and an effect of the detention operation is to be able to gather actionable intelligence. In this particular case of those two detainees, one knew where the hostages were and provided that information.

GARRELS: In Toronto, Doug Pritchard, a spokesman for the hostages, rejoiced at their release. But he pointedly did not thank the U.S.-led forces. Instead, he blamed them for creating the conditions that led to the abductions.

Mr. DOUG PRITCHARD (Co-director, Christian Peacemaker Teams): We pray that Christians throughout the world will, in the same spirit, call for justice and for respect for the human rights of the thousands of Iraqis who are being held illegally by U.S. and British forces occupying Iraq.

GARRELS: The mission of the Christian activists elicits mixed responses from Iraqis. Some applaud their support for Iraqi prisoners, some say they're naïve. Some say that while well meaning, their one-sided attacks on the U.S.-led coalition play into the hands of the insurgency. Twenty-five-year-old Iraqi Christian Mariam Sarkis(ph) believes foreign Christian interference at this point endangers the tiny Christian community, whose position in Iraq is increasingly tenuous.

Ms. MARIAM SARKIS (Iraqi Christian): (THROUGH TRANSLATOR) Frankly, they were stupid to be here in a country which is not stable and not secure, and day after day sectarian tensions are getting worse. Their high-profile presence here can hurt Christians living in Iraq. They are not helping us.

GARRELS: More than 200 foreigners have been abducted since the U.S. invaded three years ago. At least 55 have been killed by their captors. And at least five foreigners are currently being held hostage, including American journalist Jill Carroll. British and U.S. officials were reluctant to give details on today's release, saying they didn't wish to jeopardize ongoing operations, presumably efforts to free those still being held.

Thousands of Iraqis have also been kidnapped, once for ransom, more and more are disappearing because of sectarian violence. And at least 56 Iraqis died today, with one car bomb killing 25 people in the third major attack on a police jail in three days. General Rick Lynch acknowledged a spike in ethnic sectarian incidents, saying civilian casualties increased 75 percent last week.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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