INTERNATIONAL

Militants threaten to kill hostages

Atul Aneja

DUBAI: As the debate over the exit of American forces gathers momentum, Iraqi guerillas have stepped up targeting Westerners in order to influence an early withdrawal.

An Iraqi militant group has aired yet another video over Al Jazeera television, where it threatened to execute four abducted Western hostages by a December 8 deadline, unless all prisoners in American and Iraqi detention centres were released.

Peace activists

The group — Swords of Righteousness Brigade — which was earlier unknown, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of two Canadians, one Briton and one American. All the four belong to a Chicago-based NGO — Christian Peacemaker teams. Their kidnappers have described them as spies who worked under the cover of peace activists.

The video showed the Canadians eating Arabic sweets from plates, while in another clip, the British and American hostages were shown talking into the camera. All the men looked frightened, and urged the American and British Governments to withdraw from Iraq. The group was kidnapped on November 26 near the Baghdad University after a car blocked the way of the vehicle in which they were travelling. Gunmen then emerged, pulled out the driver and the translator, and drove away with the group, security officials were quoted as saying.

Iraqi guerillas have also launched fresh attacks on American troops, killing 10 and wounding 11 on Thursday. The U.S. military command said that a roadside bomb comprising four artillery shells exploded in Fallujah where soldiers were on patrol.

The incident resulted in the largest number of American casualties in a single day, since August. Consequently, the U.S. death toll in Iraq has risen to 2,120, and the total number of wounded now stand at around 16,000, according to Pentagon figures.

Sensitive time

The killings come at a particularly sensitive time when support for the war inside the United States has been plummeting.

They occurred one day after U.S. President George Bush delivered a major speech where he outlined his strategy for victory in Iraq.

Also on Thursday, hundreds of guerillas belonging to the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq had attacked government buildings and a U.S. base in Ramadi, close to Fallujah. Eyewitnesses said that the attackers had fanned out into the city.