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Department defends Iraq actions

9 December 2005

The head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has defended his officials against accusations they did nothing to help the family of a New Zealand resident being held hostage in Iraq.

The kidnappers of Harmeet Singh Sooden and three other aid workers had set a deadline of last night (New Zealand time) for the execution of the hostages.

But television news network Al Jazeera yesterday morning reported the kidnappers had extended the deadline for British and United States Governments to meet their demands by another two days.

In New Zealand yesterday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs chief executive Simon Murdoch faced questions from Green MP Keith Locke, who has accused the Government of being slow to act on the hostage situation.

The kidnapping was on Sunday, November 27, but the Government had not made any contact with the family until the following Friday, Mr Locke said.

The hostageís mother made a video appeal a week after her sonís disappearance.

I donít accept that the characterisation of this period between November 27 and now is one in which the ministry was doing nothing. I think thatís incorrect, Mr Murdoch told Parliamentís foreign affairs committee yesterday.

The situation was highly complex and at least three governments were involved.

It was being managed by Canada, given that Mr Sooden was a Canadian citizen.

He also said the ministryís media relations adviser had helped the mother the weekend the video appeal was made.

Norman Kember (74), of London, Tom Fox (54), of the United States, Canadian James Loney (41) and Mr Sooden (32), who has been living in Auckland, were working for the Christian Peacemaker Teams, an anti-war group.

The Brigade of the Swords of Righteousness has threatened to kill the four unless prisoners in US and Iraqi detention centres are released.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters said yesterday the lack of contact with the Iraqi militants holding the aid workers was hugely frustrating.

Mr Peters said the day of the first deadline had been reached without the Government being able to make contact with the kidnappers.

I have to admit that it is extraordinarily frustrating when, from the Prime Minister down, we have not been able to get to the one key element here and that is the abductors, he told National Radio.

He hoped the militants had been able to see or hear broadcasts of appeals by Muslim leaders for the release of the hostages.

Itís just a matter of hoping that they have got the communications from a number of sources as to the innocence of these people so they know they have the wrong people in their sights, he said.

Thatís pretty clear and given the interventions from the Muslim leadership in the United Kingdom and also the most recent one overnight from one of the people imprisoned in the UK.

In the latest appeal, Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, who has been jailed in Britain for links to al Qaeda, said the hostages should not be punished for the policies of their governments.


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