Preparations were today under way for the return to the UK of former hostage Peter Moore after his release yesterday from two and a half years of captivity in Iraq.
Following his surprise release yesterday morning, Mr Moore spent the night at the British Embassy in Baghdad, where he is receiving medical attention and support ahead of his return home. The Foreign Office was last night unable to say whether he would fly back to Britain today.
The 36-year-old computer expert from Lincoln is believed to have been in solitary confinement for most of the last 31 months, since being kidnapped along with his four British bodyguards by militants posing as police at the finance ministry in Baghdad on May 29, 2007.
Family members yesterday indicated that he did not know the fate of his four fellow-captives.
The bodies of Alec MacLachlan, Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell were passed to British authorities earlier this year and the Foreign Office believes the fourth – Alan McMenemy – is also dead.
Speculation was mounting that Mr Moore was freed in return for the release from US custody of a leading Shi’ite insurgent.
Qais al-Khazali is a leader of the Asaib al-Haq group, which is believed to be behind the abduction of the five Britons, and it is thought that his release was one of the kidnappers’ key demands.
He was handed over to Iraqi authorities along with a number of other detainees, and officials said he would be set free unless evidence is found to support a prosecution in the domestic legal system.
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband insists that no “substantive concessions” were made to the hostage-takers by the UK, and the Foreign Office last night said Mr Moore’s release was “completely separate” from the handover of Khazali which took place under the terms of an agreement between the US and Iraqi governments.
Khazali and his brother Laith have been linked to the killing of five US soldiers in Karbala in 2007 and Asaib al-Haq – or League of Righteousness – has since been blamed for a number of attacks.
Shortly after Laith’s release in June, the remains of Mr Creswell and Mr Swindlehurst were passed to UK officials by the Iraqi authorities.
The Foreign Office was today playing down reports that the men had been held in Iran following their abduction.
The Guardian quoted a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as saying the kidnapping was masterminded by the organisation.
The men were moved to Iran within days of their kidnapping and held by the Guard’s al-Quds brigade at the Qasser Shiereen military camp near the Iraqi border and then at a camp called Tehran Pars near the city of Qom, claimed the paper.
“It was an Iranian kidnap, led by the Revolutionary Guard, carried out by the al-Quds brigade,” said the unnamed former Guard member.
“My contact works for al-Quds. He took part in the planning of the kidnap and he watched the kidnapping as it was taking place. He told me that they spent two days at the Qasser Shiereen camp. They then took them deep inside Iran.”
The BBC reported today that the US’s former commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, had said he was “90% certain” that the Britons were held in Iran for part of their period in captivity.
But the Foreign Office said: “We have no evidence that the British hostages, including Peter Moore, were held in Iran. We are not in a position to say with any certainty where they were held during each and every single day of their two and a half years in captivity.”
Mr Moore’s first request after arriving at the UK Embassy yesterday was for some British food before calling his family, reported The Independent.
“Thank God, you are the first British faces I have seen for years, I just want to cry,” he is reported to have said.
The Foreign Office said Mr Moore was being given support at the Embassy before being questioned about his ordeal.
“He is seeing a doctor and speaking to people there,” said a spokeswoman. “Our main priority is his welfare and to look after him and ensure he is in as fit a state as he can be. That will come before any formal debriefing sessions.”
Mr Moore’s mother Avril Sweeney last night said his release had lifted “a big black cloud” hanging over his family.
Speaking from her home in Thornton Cleveleys, Lancashire, 54-year-old Mrs Sweeney said the years of his imprisonment had been “horrendous”, adding: “All I want to do now is to see him back”.
Mr Moore’s father Graeme, 60, from Wigston, Leicestershire, said he was “over the moon” at the news.
He said: “We are so relieved and we just want to get him home, back now to his family and friends.”
Both Mr Miliband and Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued demands for the kidnappers to return Mr McMenemy’s body.