Militants claim to have killed US hostage

URGENT MESSAGE: In a video posted on an Islamic Web site, a supposed hostage appealed to Americans to leave Iraq before apparently being beheaded on camera

REUTERS AND AP , BAGHDADAND SAN FRANCISCO

Sun, Aug 08, 2004 - Page 1

A group linked to al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has beheaded an American hostage in Iraq, according to a video posted on an Islamic Web site yesterday.

"I am from San Francisco, California," said the young man dressed in a plain beige T-shirt as he sat on a chair. "We need to leave this country right now. If we don't, everyone is gonna be killed in this way," he said.

The clearly distraught American gave his name and address before appealing to the US to leave Iraq.

The name and address appeared to match a Benjamin Vanderford, who has a US Web site. He is described on that site as a a 22-year-old aspiring local politician and musician.

"I have been offered for exchange for prisoners here in Iraq," the terrified-looking American said in the video, rocking back and forth in his chair, his hands tied behind his back.

"We need to leave this country alone. We need to stop this occupation." The video then showed the beheading.

The US military in Baghdad had no immediate comment.

It was not clear when the American was captured or what he was doing in Iraq.

Scores of hostages from two dozen countries have been seized in the past four months. Most have been freed but at least 10 have been killed, sometimes by beheading. At least 20 hostages are still being held in Iraq.

Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for several suicide bombings and other attacks on Iraqi and US officials in recent months. It has also killed another American, a South Korean and a Bulgarian hostage in Iraq.

The group had threatened to kill Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other Iraqi officials.

"Allawi, be sure that we only have the sword for you, whose thirst we'll quench with your blood," the group said yesterday. "This may be soon by the strength of God," said its statement posted on a Web site Islamic militants have sometimes used to post warnings.

Allawi was set to announce later yesterday a series of measures aimed at containing the insurgency raging since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April last year.

The handover of power to Allawi's interim administration in June has failed to ease the wave of bombings, kidnappings and attacks against Iraqi and US forces.

Just a sick joke?

But the video aired Saturday that purportedly showed an American being decapitated in Iraq may have all been a hoax.

The man shown in the video, reached by AP in San Francisco, said he videotaped the staged beheading at his friend's house using fake blood.

Benjamin Vanderford, 22, said he began distributing the video on the Internet months ago in hopes of drawing attention to his one-time campaign for city supervisor. When his political aspirations waned, he thought the video would serve as social commentary.

"It was part of a stunt, but no one noticed it up until now," Vanderford said. "I did this for a couple of reasons. One is to attract attention. But two is to just make a statement on these type of videos and how easily they can be faked."

On the tape, Vanderford sat on a chair in a dark room, his hands behind his back, trembling and rocking back and forth. The tape showed a hand with a knife cutting at the motionless man's neck, but did not show any militants.

"We need to leave this country alone. We need to stop this occupation," he said on the video, adding that he had been offered for exchange with prisoners in Iraq. "Everyone's going to be killed this way."

The videotape was posted on a militant Web site and aired on Arab television Saturday. Vanderford was clad in a T-shirt, not the orange jumpsuit that other hostages have been dressed in.

The video was titled "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Slaughters an American." Zarqawi is an al-Qaida linked militant whose group, Tawhid and Jihad, has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks across Iraq, including the beheading of US businessman Nicholas Berg.

Vanderford's video also showed images of disfigured and injured people in Iraq. A recording of the Quran, Islam's holy book, played in the background.

Sipping soda in his kitchen, a shirtless Vanderford said he spliced images he took from a Hamas Web site showing mutilated bodies. He later edited the 55 second video to downgrade the quality so it would look similar to beheading tapes distributed since the war in Iraq began.

"We had to make it more lower quality to make it more realistic," said Vanderford, who works at a bank. "That was another experiment that was part of this to see how quickly that system will spread news."

He said he understood if relatives of those killed in Iraq thought his stunt was misguided, but he offered no apologies for the hoax.

"I see how it could be considered disrespectful. But I think people, if they look at it, will understand two other big issues it brings up," he said. "A small group of disgruntled people in Iraq or Saudi Arabia could just get more attention just by easily releasing something like I did on the Internet."

Battle in Najaf

US marines battled Shiite militiamen in the holy city of Najaf for a third day yesterday as the death toll mounted in the worst bout of fighting in Iraq in four months.

The fresh fighting marks another major challenge for US-backed Allawi and has destroyed a two-month-old ceasefire between US forces and the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The US marines said they had killed 300 fighters of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia. But a militia spokesman said only 36 militiamen had died in several Iraqi cities from clashes that have fuelled fears of a new rebellion of radical Shi'ites.

Statements on Friday said two US marines were killed in action in Najaf and one soldier died of an attack in Baghdad.

The latest upsurge of violence also throws into doubt a conference set for Aug. 15 to choose a 100-member National Council to act as parliament.

Residents in Najaf said the combatants exchanged machinegun fire, shells and mortars into the early hours yesterday. There was a lull, but then fierce fighting erupted again around midday.