Terrified humanitarian worker pleads for her life; begs Britain to withdraw troops

Thursday, October 21st 2004, 7:11 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Trembling, haggard and weeping into a tissue, Margaret Hassan, the kidnapped British aid worker who has spent nearly half her life delivering food and medicine in Iraq, begged Britain on Friday to help save her by withdrawing its troops, saying these ``might be my last hours.''

The gaunt woman's wrenching televised statement _ delivered in between sobs _ puts new political pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, a day after it agreed to a U.S. request to transfer 850 British soldiers from southern Iraq to the Baghdad area to free American forces for new offensives against insurgents.

``Please help me, please help me,'' Hassan, a British-Irish-Iraqi national who heads CARE International operation in Iraq, said in a grainy videotape broadcast by Al-Jazeera television. ``This might be my last hours. Please help me. Please, the British people, ask Mr. Blair to take the troops out of Iraq, and not to bring them here to Baghdad.''

Blair's decision to redeploy the troops drew strong criticism from within his Labour party, and Hassan's desperate appeal is likely to stoke opposition among the British public, where support for the Iraq mission has never been as strong as in the United States.

``That's why people like Mr. Bigley and myself are being caught,'' Hassan said, referring to British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was beheaded this month. ``And maybe we will die like Mr. Bigley. Please, please, I beg of you.''

Iraqi extremists have often subjected foreign hostages to such humiliating performances, exploiting their agony to win concessions from their employers or governments, stir up opposition to U.S.-led operations in the country and win recruits from within the Muslim world.

Unlike most previous hostage tapes, however, this one featured no hooded gunmen, no banners identifying the militant group and no explicit demands for the captive's freedom. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based station, said it received the tape Friday but did not say where or how.

Hassan, who is married to an Iraqi, was seized by gunmen Tuesday in western Baghdad as she rose to work in her car. She appeared in the Friday tape wearing what appeared to be a robe or house dress. A tape released on the day of her abduction showed her wearing a white blouse with a round collar.

Hassan is believed to be in her early 60s and has done aid work in Iraq for nearly 30 years. She joined CARE soon after it began operations in Iraq in 1991, managing a staff of 60 Iraqis who run nutrition, health and water programs throughout the country.

She was a vocal opponent of international sanctions on Iraq and warned British lawmakers before last year's U.S.-led invasion that a conflict could produce a humanitarian crisis in a country already severely weakened by the embargoes.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the videotape as ``extremely distressing'' and called for Hassan's immediate release.

``Margaret is a woman who has lived in Iraq for 32 years,'' Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said. ``She is a person who has selflessly worked for the benefit of her Iraqi fellow citizens and fought for the rights of the Iraqi people for many years.''

Militants have kidnapped at least seven other foreign women over the past six months, and all were released. In September, Italian aid workers Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, both 29, were kidnapped from their Baghdad offices; they were freed three weeks later.

By contrast, at least 33 foreign male hostages have been killed, including three Americans beheaded by their captors. Insurgents, nevertheless, have targeted Iraqi women working for the Americans or their allies, including a deadly ambush Thursday on a bus carrying female airline employees on their way to work at Baghdad airport.

Hassan is the most prominent of the more than 150 foreigners kidnapped in Iraq. She is widely known for her charity work in the Middle East, was born in Dublin and was naturalized as an Iraqi after her marriage.

Evan F. Kohlmann, a terrorism expert in Washington, noted that Hassan was abducted after Britain and the United States refused to release women prisoners as demanded by Bigley's kidnappers.

``You shame our women, we shame your women,'' he told The Associated Press by telephone. ``Women and children are supposed to be off the target list. When they are taken and killed in such a horrible way, it strikes a particular chord, there's no doubt.''

Bigley's kidnappers identified themselves as members of Tawhid and Jihad, Iraq's most feared extremist group, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Bigley was kidnapped on Sept. 16 along with two Americans, who were beheaded within days.

The Macedonian Foreign Ministry confirmed Friday that three Macedonian contractors kidnapped in Iraq on Aug. 21 had been beheaded. A Turkish welder, Abdurrahman Yildirim, escaped this week from his Iraqi captors who left a door open, his uncle said Friday.

U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi's headquarters is in Fallujah, the insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad. American forces have clashed with militants around Fallujah for weeks, and it is widely believed that the move to redeploy British troops is a signal that an all-out assault on the city is near.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities want to curb the Sunni insurgency to enable national elections to take place as planned by the end of January. However, guerrilla attacks across the country have increased by about 25 percent since the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that started last weekend.

In the latest clashes, U.S. troops battled insurgents Friday with small arms, rocket and artillery fire near Buhriz, a former Saddam Hussein stronghold about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. U.S. troops killed nine suspected insurgents but suffered no American casualties, the military said.