Monday, May 22, 2006

Europe paid millions in ransoms in Iraq

No longer an open secret, The Times reports on documents proving that France, Italy and Germany have all ponied up millions of dollars to ransom their citizens unfortunate enough to have been abducted in Iraq.

I imagine most of the hostage takers were just criminals looking to get rich, but I suspect quite a bit of that money was either donated or paid as a "tax" to the terrorists.
FRANCE, Italy and Germany sanctioned the payment of $45 million in deals to free nine hostages abducted in Iraq, according to documents seen by The Times.

All three governments have publicly denied paying ransom money. But according to the documents, held by security officials in Baghdad who have played a crucial role in hostage negotiations, sums from $2.5 million to $10 million per person have been paid over the past 21 months. Among those said to have received cash ransoms was the gang responsible for seizing British hostages including Kenneth Bigley, the murdered Liverpool engineer.

The list of payments has also been seen by Western diplomats, who are angered at the behaviour of the three governments, arguing that it encourages organised crime gangs to grab more foreign captives.

“In theory we stand together in not rewarding kidnappers, but in practice it seems some administrations have parted with cash and so it puts other foreign nationals at risk from gangs who are confident that some governments do pay,” one senior envoy in the Iraqi capital said.

More than 250 foreigners have been abducted since the US-led invasion in 2003. At least 44 have been killed; 135 were released, three escaped, six were rescued and the fate of the others remains unknown.

One wonders just how many of those 135 released hostages were ransomed by governments. The total paid could be far above $45 million.

A number of other governments, including those of Turkey, Romania, Sweden and Jordan, are said to have paid for their hostages to be freed, as have some US companies with lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq. At least four businessmen with dual US and Iraqi nationality have been returned, allegedly in exchange for payments by their employers. This money is often disguised as “ expenses” paid to trusted go-betweens for costs that they claim to incur.

The release this month of Rene Braunlich and Thomas Nitzschke, two German engineers, for a reported $5 million payment prompted senior Iraqi security officials to seek talks with leading Western diplomats in the capital on how to handle hostage release.

When the men returned home, Alaa al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Ambassador to Germany, revealed that the German Government handed over “a large amount” to free the pair after 99 days in captivity. The kidnappers are understood to have asked for $10 million.

Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, called last night for an immediate end to the practice. “The idea that Western governments would have paid ransoms is extremely disturbing,” he said. “It is essential that governments never give in to blackmail from terrorists or criminals if security is ever to be maintained.”

Michael Moore, a Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “These governments have created a kidnappers’ charter. Everyone from outside Iraq working in the country becomes more vulnerable as a result.” [...]

At least two crime gangs are alleged to have sold on some of their foreign captives to militant groups who use the hostages for propaganda purposes rather than obtaining ransoms.

Britain has never paid to free its citizens, despite pressure from the employees of some hostages, but is understood to have paid intermediaries “expenses” for their efforts to make contact with the kidnappers.

British officials have been criticised for giving the kidnappers of the peace activist Norman Kember time to escape to avoid the risk of a gun battle with Special Forces troops sent to rescue him and his two fellow captives from a house in central Baghdad in March.

Only when Jill Carroll, an American journalist, was freed eight days later did intelligence experts discover that she had been held by the same notorious crime family, who were working with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the wanted al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. That revelation infuriated US officials in Baghdad, who had let Britain take the lead in tracing and freeing Professor Kember, 74, and his two Canadian colleagues.

FBI agents are investigating claims that this gang sold some of its hostages, including American contractors and aid workers, to militant Islamic groups. The gang is reported to have had a hand in organising the abduction of three British hostages, Margaret Hassan, Mr Bigley and Professor Kember, and three Italian journalists.

Figures involved in secret talks to resolve hostage cases told The Times that Mrs Hassan, an aid worker who had converted to Islam and taken Iraqi citizenship, was murdered soon after Tony Blair made it clear in a television broadcast seen on an Arab satellite channel that the Government would not pay a ransom. Wealthy benefactors had signalled their readiness to pay for her release.

A key figure in brokering some of the deals has been Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Qubaisi, a militant Sunni cleric and senior figure in the Association of Muslim Scholars. Professor Kember and his party had just visited the group when he was abducted last November.

What a shadowy world to have to deal with. Encouraging kidnappers only further muddies the waters.