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Uncertainty over hostages' release / Mediator withdraws from talks

MANAMA, AUG. 1. Negotiations to seek the release of seven persons, including three Indians who had been taken hostage in Iraq, appear to have hit a last-minute snag, with the Iraqi mediator, Sheikh Hisham Al Dulaimi, announcing his withdrawal from the talks.

"I am withdrawing because I have reached no agreement with the [men's employer] Kuwaitis," Mr. Al Dulaimi said.

He said he had received a letter signed by the commander of the Islamic Secret Army asking him to withdraw from the negotiations if no agreement was reached by 6 p.m. (8.30 IST). Quoting from the letter, he said the kidnappers would then take "appropriate measures with regard to the hostages."

Mr. Al Dulaimi denied agency reports from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, quoting the Kenyan Foreign Minister, Chirau Ali Mwakwere, that all the hostages, including three Kenyans and an Egyptian, had been released and brought to the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad. "This is all news to me," AFP quoted him as saying.

'False statement'

The Iraqi negotiator said the Kuwaiti transport company, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company (KGL), was "not responding to us." KGL had agreed to cease its operations in Iraq, as had been demanded by the kidnappers, but was "still arguing" about the payment of compensation to the families in Fallujah that had suffered due to American aerial bombardment of the city. Asked to comment on the Iraqi mediator's remarks, the KGL spokesperson, Rana Abu Zaineh, told The Hindu that she hoped that "Mr. Al Dulaimi would reconsider his statement and continue with the negotiations." Asked to comment on whether the hostages had been freed, she said: "This is a false statement by the Kenyan Foreign Minister."

The captives' release had earlier appeared imminent when Mr. Al Dulaimi made a statement this afternoon that a breakthrough could be achieved during the day.

Speaking on Al Araybia television, Mr. Al Dulaimi, in response to a question said that an "agreement" with the kidnappers belonging to the Black Banners Brigade of the Islamic Secret Army was likely. Asked specifically whether the hostages would be released today, Mr. Al Dulaimi said: "Yes, we hope so."

Company was optimistic

Striking an equally optimistic note, the KGL spokesperson had said that the talks were in their final stages and the settlement with the kidnappers could be reached at any time. Asked whether the kidnappers would need to extend the deadline that they had set for executing a hostage by another 24 hours, Ms. Rana had said: "I do not think so, unless there are some procedural matters that may have to be cleared."

Indicating that an end to the hostage crisis was near, the Kenyan Foreign Minister was quoted as saying that, "They're (the kidnappers) ready to release them right away. It's a question now of where." Mr. Mwakwere said that Kenya's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia was on his way to Kuwait to receive the Kenyan hostages in the event of a possible release.

Mr. Al Dulaimi had told Al Araybia television during the day that KGL did not have to pay compensation for the losses suffered for the people of Fallujah. He had pointed out that the demand for compensation was "political" and was "out of the purview of the company."

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