x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Bodies of two British hostages released

The bodyguards kidnapped in Baghdad may have been dead for months but talks to free three other captives could come to fruition.

LONDON // The families of two British bodyguards taken hostage in Baghdad more than two years ago were told yesterday that the men were dead. The bodies of the pair - both believed to have been dead for some months - were handed over to UK Embassy officials in Baghdad on Friday and their identities were confirmed by DNA tests yesterday. Both men were captured in May 2007, along with two other bodyguards and Peter Moore, an IT specialist, at the Iraq ministry of finance by about 40 armed men dressed as Iraqi police officers.

The UK's foreign office has been in protracted negotiations with the kidnappers and there have recently been signs that an agreement to free the other men might be near. It remained unclear last night whether the hostage-takers had released the badly decomposed bodies as a sign of good faith or as a signal of defiance. Last year, the captors announced that one of the hostages - a man identified only as one of two people called Jason in the group - had committed suicide.

It was revealed last night that the dead men are believed to be Jason Creswell, originally from Glasgow, and Jason Swindlehurst, originally from Skelmersdale. Relatives of Mr Moore and a bodyguard called Alec, who is from south Wales, confirmed yesterday afternoon that their family members were not among the dead. A spokesman for the foreign office said the victims would not be named until families had had time to come to terms with their grief.

The security guards in the group were employed by Garda World, a Canadian firm hired to protect Mr Moore. They have been identified by the foreign office by only their first names: Alec, the two Jasons and Alan, who is from Scotland. Responsibility for the kidnappings was originally blamed on Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and was thought to be a retaliatory attack for the killing by British forces of the militia's commander in Basra.

Negotiations to secure the release of the men have been going on through third parties almost ever since and hopes were raised of a breakthrough when the US military handed over Laith al Khazali, a Shiite insurgent, to the Iraqi authorities on June 6. The release of Mr al Khazali, a senior member of Asaib Ahl al Haq, was one of the demands made by the kidnappers, although both US and British officials said at the time that the two were not linked.

Mr Moore, 32, an IT consultant from Lincoln working for Bearing Point, a US management consultancy, appeared in a video made public in March and appeared well. His father, Graeme, 59, who has been critical of the foreign office's handling of the affair, said yesterday: "Today's information brings very mixed feelings. Obviously, I hope my son is alive, but I feel desperate for the other families. What they are going through is unimaginable.

"I do not know who the dead are; we were not told. I can only say that my thoughts are with the four other families. These past 24 hours have been torture." David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, said the confirmation that the bodies were those of two of the hostages was "distressing" and he accepted that efforts to free the five alive and well had ended in failure. "In this case we, all of us, have clearly failed to achieve that goal in respect of two bodies whose identities we cannot yet confirm," he said. "We have never speculated on the outcome of this case although we have been working intensively on it, so the overriding feeling today is one of deep sadness and fear."

Government sources said that, while the identities of the victims had been established, the causes of death were unlikely to be revealed for some time. A spokesman for the prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he had been "saddened and dismayed" by the development. William Hague, the opposition shadow foreign secretary, added: "This is deeply sad and distressing news, in particular for the families who have been waiting so long to know what has happened to their loved ones.

"We must still not give up hope for some of the hostages, or relax the constant efforts to bring them home." Doug Beattie, a respected military analyst and formerly an officer with the Royal Irish Regiment, said he believed that the handover of the bodies was a "signal" to the British government and the security company that employed the two dead captives. The evidence would suggest "deep, deep negotiations" are continuing behind the scenes, Mr Beattie said.

"The release of these bodies is no coincidence - it suggests a very deliberate act on behalf of the captors. "We must all be very careful not to endanger the lives of those still being held, but there is every reason to hope and believe they are still alive. There will be deep, deep negotiations going on." dsapsted@thenational.ae