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Five Britons seized in Iraq are held in Iran

Sample ImageSource: The Sunday Times
FIVE British hostages who were kidnapped in Iraq last year are being held in Tehran, the Iranian capital, according to intelligence reports received by the Foreign Office.

The disclosure, supported by two security sources in London and officials in Iraq, means that any rescue attempt by British special forces would be almost impossible.

The latest intelligence follows statements last year by General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, that he believed the five men had been abducted by a group funded, trained and armed by Iran.

Petraeus stopped short of commenting on their whereabouts.

Four of the hostages were security men. They were guarding Peter Moore, a computer specialist.

The group was abducted in an apparently well planned operation on May 29 last year. About 40 heavily armed men dressed in police uniform stormed the finance ministry in Baghdad where Moore was training staff.

They were last seen being driven off in a convoy of 19 four-wheel drive vehicles towards Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling Shi’ite district.

Their kidnapping was said to be in retaliation for the killing by British troops of the Shi’ite commander in Basra, southern Iraq.

Petraeus identified the kidnappers as a secret cell of the Mahdi Army, the Shi’ite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric. The militia has denied involvement.

On a video broadcast last December, the kidnappers identified themselves as the Shi’ite Islamic Resistance in Iraq. In that video one of the kidnapped men, who said his name was Jason, said: “I feel we have been forgotten.”

In a second video released in February, Moore appealed to Gordon Brown to secure his release by freeing nine Iraqis.

“I have been held here for nearly eight months now. Release their people so that we can go home. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

The hostages’ future is said to hinge on the release of Qais al-Khazaali, a former chief spokesman for the Mahdi Army, and eight other Mahdi officials.

Khazaali, who led a Mahdi faction trained in Iran, was detained by American forces after masterminding a raid inside a base in which five US soldiers were killed.

A senior official in Basra confirmed that the hostages were all in Iran. “You have to understand that the groups that kidnapped these men are affiliated to Iran,” he said.

“Iran acts as the embracing mother for them in their acts and deeds and will also benefit from the situation. It is their haven.”

He said that a British photographer working for CBS, who was kidnapped from his hotel in Basra last month, has also been taken to Iran but officials in London were unable to confirm this.

The Foreign Office said that it had a policy of not commenting on the whereabouts of any British hostages.