Wed, Jan 19, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Archbishop freed as militants take Chinese hostages

IRAQ DRAMA The Syrian Catholic Church prelate was unconditionally released, while the Vatican said the Church had not been specifically targeted

AGENCIES , VATICAN CITY, BAGHDAD, BEIJING AND DUBAI

A Catholic archbishop kidnapped in Iraq has been freed, the Vatican said yesterday.

Pope John Paul II was informed immediately of the release, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

"He changed his prayer to one of thanks," he said.

A ransom of US$200,000 had been demanded at first but the bishop was released without the payment of any money, the Vatican said.

The prelate kidnapped on Monday was Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, of the Syrian Catholic Church, one of the branches of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican had branded the kidnapping a "despicable terrorist act" and demanded his immediate release.

A priest in Iraq said on condition of anonymity that the archbishop was walking in front of the al-Bishara church in Mosul's eastern neighborhood of Muhandeseen when the gunmen forced him into a car and drove away.

The reason for the kidnapping was unclear but Christians -- tens of thousands of whom live in and around Mosul -- have been subjected to attacks in the past.

Navarro-Valls said the Vatican didn't view the kidnapping as an anti-Christian act but part of the general climate of violence in Iraq. He said the archbishop was well-loved in the community.

Meanwhile, eight Chinese nationals were kidnapped by militants in Iraq, the official Xinhua news agency said yesterday, citing the Chinese embassy in Baghdad.

The al-Jazeera TV channel yesterday aired footage of the alleged prisoners in Iraq, whose abductors are threatening to execute them unless Beijing "clarifies its role" in Iraq within 48 hours.

The kidnappers said that the eight "worked with US forces in Iraq," the Qatar-based station said, showing the group surrounded by two hooded gunmen.

Elsewhere, Iraqi officials said yesterday that they will seal the country's borders, extend a nighttime curfew and restrict movement inside the country to protect voters during the Jan. 30 elections, which insurgents are seeking to ruin with a campaign of violence.

Attacks continued yesterday, with a suicide car bomber detonating explosives outside the offices of a leading Shiite political party, killing himself and three other people as part of an apparent rebel campaign to frighten Shiites from voting.

Also, masked gunmen killed a Shiite Muslim candidate in the Iraqi capital.

Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency, are increasingly honing in on Shiites in their campaign to ruin the Jan. 30 election that is widely expected to propel their religious rivals to a position of dominance.

Yesterday morning's car bombing gouged a crater in the pavement, left several vehicles in flames and spread shredded debris and flesh on the street outside the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a main contender in the election.

The party has close ties to Iran and is strongly opposed by Sunni Muslim militants.

The assailant told guards at a checkpoint leading to the party's office that he was part of SCIRI's security staff, but detonated his bomb-laden car at the guard post when he was not allowed to enter.

The US military reported that the bomber and three others were dead and that four people were injured.

Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission announced that the country's international borders would be closed between Jan. 29 and Jan. 31, except for Muslim pilgrims who are returning from the hajj.

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