Ordeal over for kidnapped student

By Herald Staff, Agencies

Kidnapped New Zealand student Harmeet Sooden was last night freed from his hostage ordeal after a military operation in Baghdad.

Two other Christian aid worker colleagues were also released in the rescue by coalition forces.

Mr Sooden, 32, who was abducted with a group on November 26, spoke with his family soon after his release.

His brother-in-law, Aucklander Mark Brewer, said his family were "overjoyed" at the news.

The family were making arrangements to fly to Iraq and hoped to leave as early as today. "We just want to get up there and bring him home."

A statement from the Sooden family released through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: "We're overjoyed at the news. We're looking forward to seeing him in person. Our thoughts are with Mr Fox [the dead American hostage Tom Fox] and his family."

Prime Minister Helen Clark said she was "pleased and grateful" that Mr Sooden's long ordeal was over.

Mr Sooden - a Canadian citizen who has been studying for his master's degree at the University of Auckland, fellow Canadian Jim Loney, 41, and Briton Norman Kember, 74, from the Christian Peacemaker Teams, were found west of Baghdad, US Colonel John Snow said.

He declined to say who found them or how they were released, which came two weeks after Mr Fox was killed by their captors.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a statement to BBC television: "The three hostages have been released as a result of a multinational force operation.

"British forces were involved in this operation. It follows weeks and weeks of very careful work by our military and coalition personnel in Iraq and many civilians as well."

He refused to go into details about the operation, but noted that their release was tempered by the death of Mr Fox, 54.

Mr Straw said that Mr Kember was in a "reasonable condition" and recovering in Baghdad's secure "green zone" but that Mr Loney and Mr Sooden needed hospital treatment.

"I have, on the two occasions I have been to Iraq since Christmas, spoken to the great team that has been involved in trying to secure the release of the hostages," he said.

Their November 26 abduction was claimed by a group calling itself the Brigades of the Swords of Righteousness, which threatened to kill them unless all Iraqi prisoners were released.

The three freed hostages last appeared in a video broadcast on pan-Arab satellite television al-Jazeera on March 7 in which they issued a new appeal for their Governments to work for their release.

Mr Fox was found handcuffed and shot dead on a rubbish dump in west Baghdad on March 9. His body had been wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a plastic bag.

Mr Sooden travelled to Palestinian territory in December 2004 to join the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and stayed until January 2005.

He worked with local Palestinian people, mostly in Nablus and Jenin, and while in Jenin he worked with a group of ISM activists who planted olive trees on a local farm.

Mr Sooden was committed to return there for three months to join the ISM again at the beginning of December as a long-term activist for the liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation, but first decided to join a two-week Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation to Iraq.

It can be revealed that Mr Sooden worked for a time in Auckland for the high-tech company Oscmar International, which makes defence equipment.

After the hostage-taking, the New Zealand Government and NZ media agreed under the Terrorist Event Media Protocols not to publicise details of his employment at Oscmar.

The Herald had obtained the information before the blackout was put into place but decided not to publish it in case it put Mr Sooden's life further at risk.

The Herald was told that Mr Sooden, who has an electrical engineering degree, had left the company after he discovered Oscmar had a contract to supply Israel with the means to make military equipment.

The general manager of Oscmar International, Ernie Armijo, told the Herald on November 30 that Mr Sooden was an engineer, or designer, at the company for about a year, and left around February 2005 to study.

He would not say what projects Mr Sooden was working on.

A document obtained by the Herald listed Mr Sooden's name as a staff member working on the "harness project", a presumed reference to laser harness equipment being made for Israel's Ministry of Defence.

In 2004, the Government rejected a bid by the company to export the laser harnesses to Israel.

At least 430 foreigners are known to have been taken hostage in Iraq since the March 2003 US-led invasion.

They include 41 US nationals, some of them Iraqi-Americans. Seven are still being held.

Briton Ken Bigley was beheaded in October 2004 by a group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq and the country's most wanted man.

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