Government 'ready' to hear from hostage takers, says Straw

THE government "stands ready" to hear from the kidnappers of peace activist Norman Kember, said the Foreign Secretary yesterday.

However, Jack Straw said he was unable to confirm reports that direct contact had been made with the hostage takers.

Mr Straw reiterated the government's policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers. He said: "Hostage-taking is never a legitimate way that anyone should expect to achieve their aims."

The kidnappers have threatened to kill the hostages if all Iraqi detainees are not released by Thursday.

"If the hostage takers want to make contact with the British Government, we stand ready to hear what they have to say," said Mr Straw.

He said a policy was already in place to release Iraqi prisoners, which had so far led to the release of 12,000 detainees.

"A further 700 are being released this week," he said.

"This policy is going to continue."

The BBC said a western diplomat revealed to the broadcaster's correspondent in Baghdad, Caroline Hawley, that direct contact with the hostage-takers had been made.

A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, which has sent a leading member, Anas Altikriti, to try to secure Mr Kember's safe release, said: "We have heard some calls have been made by the supposed kidnappers, but there is no verification at this stage.

"The news is being cautiously welcomed by everyone on the ground."

Mr Kember, 74, from Pinner, north-west London, was seized in Baghdad over a week ago, along with two Canadians and an American.

He had travelled to Iraq as a gesture of solidarity with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a Canada-based group.

Mr Kember is being held with American Tom Fox, 54, and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32.

After the death of the British hostage Ken Bigley last year, Mr Straw revealed that messages were exchanged with his kidnappers in an attempt to save him after an intermediary contacted the British Embassy in Baghdad.

Earlier yesterday, political leaders and intellectuals from the Arab and Muslim worlds demanded the immediate release of kidnapped peace activists in Iraq, including Mr Kember.

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