German hostage devoted life to Iraq archaeology

By Louis Charbonneau

BERLIN - A German woman who has been abducted by gunmen in Iraq has devoted her life to uncovering Iraq's cultural treasures and fiercely criticised Washington for not preventing the looting of its archaeological sites.

The hostage is Susanne Osthoff, a Bavarian archaeologist who spent decades studying and excavating sites in Iraq to uncover the mysteries of ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the "cradle of civilisation".

In May 2003, two months after the United States and Britain invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, Osthoff brought reporters to the site of the ancient city of Isin to show them how Iraq's most important sites were being stripped clean by looters.

Osthoff had worked on a German excavation of the 4000-year-old Isin from the mid 1970s until the late 1980s, when UN sanctions forced most foreign experts out of Iraq.

"In two weeks, they have ruined all the work that was done over 15 years," Osthoff was quoted by the New York Times as saying at the time.

In other media, she voiced disbelief that the US and British invaders had virtually ignored the sites.

A search on the online auction portal eBay shows it's not difficult to find what could be looted Iraqi artefacts up for sale. At 4.00 GMT, three different cuneiform clay tablets purported to be from Mesopotamia or Sumer were being auctioned.

Osthoff's mother, in an interview with Reuters Television, said Susanne gave Iraq and its culture her "body and soul".

"She helped show the Americans what was happening to Iraq's cultural sites," Ingrid Hala said.

Shortly after midnight, Hala received terrible news from Germany's Foreign Ministry -- her daughter had been kidnapped in Iraq and was being held by gunmen who were threatening to kill her if Germany did not end cooperation with Iraq's government.

An image from a tape brought to German state broadcaster ARD showed two blindfolded people sitting on the ground surrounded by three armed, masked men, one holding a rocket propelled grenade launcher, another reading from a piece of paper.

Germany's new Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to everything within her power to save Osthoff and her driver.

One German official told Reuters that they did not want her to end up like Margaret Hassan, a British aid worker who was kidnapped and killed last year by militants in Iraq.

Like Osthoff, Hassan spoke Arabic, had spent decades in Iraq and had devoted her life to the country. Hassan had also criticised both the pre-war UN sanctions and the invasion.

Osthoff witnessed Iraqis suffering during and after the war, which prompted her to turn to relief work. A converted Muslim, she began working as volunteer in Iraqi hospitals.

"She personally helped take care of the sick in the hospitals, day and night, work that she had never actually learned how to do," Susanne Osthoff's sister Anja told Germany's N24 news television.

But like many foreigners in Iraq, where bomb attacks and kidnappings are commonplace, Osthoff lived in fear for her life and often travelled with armed guards.

Germany's Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung daily said in a press release that Osthoff told the paper in October she had been threatened by people close to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for the murder of numerous hostages in Iraq.

"Of course she was afraid," Stephan Kroll, a professor of archaeology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and a colleague of Osthoff's, told Reuters Television.

- REUTERS

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