A DEAL has been struck to free five British men held in Iraq, the hostage-takers said last night. The hostages, including two Scots, have been kept captive for two years by a Shi'ite group demanding the release of prisoners from American detention.
After months of covert negotiations the kidnappers have reportedly agreed to "trade" one of the hostages for ten detained Sadrist militants as part of a deal that could lead to the release of all the hostages.
One of the men, computer consultant Peter Moore, from Lincolnshire, was shown to be alive and well in a video handed to the British embassy last week.
Mr Moore was being guarded by the other four men while installing anti-corruption software at Baghdad's finance ministry when they were taken.
The other four hostages, who were employed as security guards by Garda World, were identified only as Alan, from Dumbarton, who is married with two children aged three and 14; Jason, a father who has family living near Aberdeen; Alec MacLachlan, 28, a former paratrooper from Llanelli, and another man named Jason, from Cardiff.
Last July a video released by the hostage-takers showed Alan saying "Physically, I'm not doing well. Psychologically, I'm doing a lot worse. I want to see my family again. I would like for the British government to please hurry".
Roseleen, Alan's wife said shortly afterwards: "I want the hostage-takers to find a peaceful way to resolve their grievances and to release our loved ones."
In a statement posted on a Saudi-owned website yesterday, a spokesman for the hostage-takers said an agreement had been reached with Britain and the US.
He said the deal would see the Britons freed gradually in return for the group of militants, which includes a former spokesman for Shia cleric Muqtadr al-Sadr, and a Lebanese Hezbollah leader captured in Iraq two years ago.
The deal, outlined by a Shia-aligned group called The League of the Righteous, gives an insight into almost two years of covert negotiations between the British government and the hostage takers.
Efforts to finalise the deal were thought to be a factor in Britain's move to re-engage publicly Hezbollah's political wing in Lebanon this month.
The spokesman for the kidnappers, who identified himself as Abu Ali R, said the handing over of the video last week, which showed Mr Moore, was the first phase of the release agreement brokered with Britain.
The tape was handed to the British embassy by an Iraqi member of parliament.
The spokesman said one of the hostages would be released imminently, with up to eight men, all Sadrist loyalists held by the US army in Iraq.
The first to be freed is expected to be Laith al-Khazali, brother of Qais al-Khazali, a spokesman for Muqtadr al-Sadr.
The final stage of the deal would see the Hezbollah figure, Ali Mousawi Dakdouk, and Qais al-Khazali freed in return for Mr Moore.
The UK government had said it wanted to protect the hostages' anonymity because several were from military backgrounds.
However this led to criticism from relatives of the kidnapped men, who said the lack of publicity about the case had left them feeling that the men had been abandoned to their fate.
Friends of Mr Moore set up their own website www.4pete.org in defiance of the government blackout to campaign for the hostages' release.
It claims that the cases of Terry Waite, the Church of England envoy freed in Beirut in 1991 after four years in captivity, and Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist who was held in Gaza for four months suggest that sustained campaigns can produce results.
A Foreign Office spokesman said last night he would not comment on the reports.
"We continue to do everything we can to try to secure the safe release of the hostages and remain extremely concerned for their safety," he said.
"We call on those holding the hostages to release them immediately and unconditionally so that they can be reunited with their families and friends."
Last year the First Minister, Alex Salmond, joined calls for the hostages to be released.
"The families know that they are suffering agonies of uncertainty and have been over some prolonged period of time," he said.