While the Christian Peacemakers Teams expressed joy at their colleagues’ sudden rescue from captivity in Iraq today, the peace activists took the opportunity to also call for an end to the US-led occupation of Iraq.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said the captives were rescued in a joint US-British operation in a rural area north-west of Baghdad. British officials confirmed that Canadians James Loney, 41 of Toronto, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, formerly of Montreal, and Briton Norman Kember, 74, of London, had been freed. The body of their American colleague, Tom Fox, of Clearbrook, Virginia, was found on March 9.
The four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams were seized at gunpoint in Baghdad on November 26.
The men had been working on behalf of the Chicago-based CPT, whose volunteers have been in Iraq since October 2002, investigating allegations of abuse against Iraqi detainees by coalition forces. The group promotes peaceful solutions in conflict zones.
Speaking in Toronto, Doug Pritchard, co-director of the Christian Peacemakers Teams, said no shots were fired and that the kidnappers were not present when the US-British-Iraqi force freed the hostages.
“There were indeed no gunshots fired,” Pritchard said, although he did not say how he got that information. “There were no captors present at the time the men were found.”
Loney spent years working with Toronto’s homeless before joining Christian Peacemaker Teams. The 41-year-old community worker had been leading the group in Iraq before he was abducted.
The Zambian-born Sooden went to Canada from Britain in the early 1990s to study at McGill University in Montreal and eventually became a Canadian citizen. In April 2003, he moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where his sister Preety lives, to pursue literature studies.
“Our hearts are filled with joy today as we heard that Harmeet Singh Sooden, Jim Loney and Norman Kember have been safely released in Baghdad,” Pritchard told a news conference, but he added: “We remember with tears Tom Fox. ... We had longed for the day when all four men would be released together. Our gladness today is bittersweet by the fact that Tom is not alive to join his colleagues in the celebration.”
Pritchard said that the former hostages “knew that their only protection was in the power of the love of God and of their Iraqi and international co-workers”.
“We believe that the illegal occupation of Iraq by multinational forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping and so much pain and suffering in Iraq today,” he said. “The occupation must end.”
Ed Loney, the brother of James Loney, said his brother had telephoned their mother in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and said that he was fine, but was sorry to have put them through such grief.
“He told them that he was well and that he was concerned about us and the family and other people who were worried, which is pretty typical of Jim, to put others first,” Loney told CBC television from Vancouver. “He’s lost quite a bit of weight; but when my mom talked to him first he sounded fantastic.”
The parents issued a brief statement to the media.
“What a joyful day this is,” they said. “We have just learned that James is coming home. He has been released unharmed with his companions Harmeet and Norman. We would like to thank everyone for their support and prayers. At this time we would also like to express our deepest sympathy to the family of Tom Fox.”
In London, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he was “delighted that now we have a happy ending in this terrible ordeal”.
He said Kember was in “reasonable condition” in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The two Canadians required hospital treatment, he said, but gave no further details.
Dan Bartlett, White House counsellor, told CBS television’s The Early Show that the United States would continue to seek the release of other foreign hostages in Iraq.
“We will continue to work as hard as we can, do everything we can in our power, working with the Iraqi government to free Jill Carroll or any other hostage that may be still held in Iraq,” Bartlett said. “And I think it’s very indicative of the type of enemy we’re facing that they’re willing to target either innocent civilians or journalists trying to cover the war in Iraq.”
Carroll, a freelance writer for The Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped on January 7 in Baghdad.