NewsSpecial WireBritish hostages held by ‘Iran-backed’ killers

British hostages held by ‘Iran-backed’ killers

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The Times: A group funded, trained and armed by Iran was responsible for kidnapping five British civilians in Baghdad last month, according to the commander of US forces in Iraq. The Times

Richard Beeston in Baghdad

A group funded, trained and armed by Iran was responsible for kidnapping five British civilians in Baghdad last month, according to the commander of US forces in Iraq.

General David Petraeus told The Times yesterday that he believed that the men, four security guards and a consultant, were alive and added that there had been repeated attempts to free them. No demands have been made for their release.

Commandos searching for the hostages have staged a series of raids on suspected terrorist hide-outs. “There have been several operations to try to rescue them, we just have not had the right intelligence,” General Petraeus said. “There is a very intensive effort ongoing to try to locate and rescue them.”

The remarks are the first official acknowledgement of secret hostage rescue efforts that the British authorities refuse to comment on. They are also likely to inflame relations with Iran further. The general said that the terrorist cell responsible had very close ties to the Iranian authorities, but he fell short of accusing Tehran of complicity.

Since the group was snatched from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad three weeks ago, Britain has sent hostage negotiators and antiterrorist experts to help in the hunt. The British Embassy in Baghdad said that staff were working hard to secure their release.

General Petraeus said that Britain and the US had suffered at the hands of the group he blamed for abducting the British hostages. He identified it as a secret cell of al-Mahdi Army, a Shia Muslim militia loyal to the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “We think that it is the same network that killed our soldiers in Karbala in an operation back in January,” he said. “We killed the head of that network less than a week before the operation that detained those British civilians. It was already planned and carried out by his followers. It is a secret cell of Jaish al-Mahdi [al-Mahdi Army”> not all of which are under control of Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Of the cell responsible for the kidnap, he said: “They are not rank-and-file Jaish al-Mahdi. They are trained in Iran, equipped with Iranian [weapons”>, and advised by Iran. The Iranian involvement here we have found to be much, much more significant than we thought before. They have since about the summer of 2004 played a very, very important role in training in Iran, funding, arming.”

He added that the group was responsible for other attacks against British targets using weapons smuggled from Iran, including explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which can destroy even the most heavily armoured British vehicle.

Speaking from his office in the heavily fortified green zone in Baghdad, the American commander also praised the work of the British military in Iraq and made an impassioned appeal to Gordon Brown to maintain Britain’s commitment when he takes over as Prime Minister at the end of the month.

The general’s comments will not please the British Government, which has refused to discuss the kidnapping or to identify the hostages.

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