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Deadline extended, fears continue for safety of hostages

Originally published in CBC News

Kidnappers holding four members of a Christian aid group in Iraq, including two Canadians, have extended their deadline. The militants now say Britain and the United States have until Saturday to meet their demands or the four will die.

The extension of the deadline means more time to negotiate a peaceful resolution, but it also means increased pressure, anxiety and heightened emotions for the families of the hostages.

James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Sooden, 32, were kidnapped at gunpoint on Nov. 26 in Baghdad, along with Briton Norman Kember, 74, and American Tom Fox, 54.

Loney is from Toronto and Sooden has lived in Montreal.

A group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigades has demanded the United States and Britain free all Iraqi prisoners by Saturday. The kidnappers say the men are spies, which is denied by their organization.

The hostages are members of a Christian aid group called Christian Peacemaker Teams, which sends teams to troubled areas. According to its web site its actions in Iraq are aimed at “focusing attention on the issue of detainee abuses and basic legal and human rights …”

The family of James Loney met with reporters on Wednesday at their home in Sault Ste, Marie, Ont.

Patrick Loney, father of James Loney, could not speak, his exhaustion evident. Instead it was James’ brother Edward who said the family was thinking not only of their situation but were also praying “for other families facing similar circumstances in Iraq.”

“We want James home,” said another brother, Matthew Loney. “We want the other members home. And we want a peaceful resolution to how things are going over there,” he said.

The militant group that is holding the Westerners originally demanded that Iraqis being held in U.S. and British custody be released by Thursday. But as the deadline approached, it was extended for a further 48 hours.

Prime Minister Paul Martin says he is concerned about the fate of the Canadians. “I’ve been on phone every day and we’re doing everything we possibly can. But it’s a matter of such delicacy I can’t really comment,” he said.

In a statement released late Wednesday evening Martin went further. “I want to reassure the public that the government of Canada remains absolutely committed to securing the safe release of the hostages. Every resource of the government is committed towards achieving that outcome.

James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden (courtesy Christian Peacemaker Teams) “Canada remains willing to listen to and speak with persons who may have information that will assist in the safe release of the hostages,” said the statement.

Christian Peacemaker Teams issued a statement on Wednesday evening highlighting its concerns about the safety of the four men.

“Christian Peacemaker Teams believes that no single person, no single nation can meet the demands of justice. No single person, no single nation can meet the demands of peace. But we believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part to bring each combatant and each captive home to their families and to end the war and occupation.”

There was support from around the Arab world, as well.

Mohammed Ayash of the International Solidarity Movement for Palestine, said the hostages are peacemakers, friends of Muslims and defenders of Iraqi detainees “because they are working there as human rights [supporters] and are against the occupation,” he said.