Saturday, March 25, 2006

Covert ops team worked for months in Iraq

OTTAWA — The work of a secret team of Canadian soldiers, police officers, spies and diplomats in Baghdad came to a successful conclusion yesterday in a raid that rescued two Canadians and one Briton who had been held hostage for almost four months, federal officials say.

Mounties and members of a Canadian special forces unit joined British and U.S. troops, who led in the rescue.

The entire Canadian team, numbering at times more than 20, has been on the ground in Baghdad, working quietly since shortly after the kidnappings on Nov. 26

In addition to members of the RCMP and the military's special forces, the team included diplomats and intelligence officers, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said.

"We were there with our very best," Mr. MacKay said in an interview. "We had everyone fully engaged in this operation from Day 1."

The extraordinary effort, he said, sends a message: "Canada should not [be], and is not passive when it comes to its own citizens and the protection of their lives."

British troops led the final phase of the delicate operation that unfolded yesterday morning in a neighbourhood in Baghdad.

The international team found Canadians James Loney, 41, Harmeet Singh Sooden, 33, and Briton Norman Kember, 74, in a building. They were bound. Their captors were not around.

Mr. MacKay said joy at the rescue was tempered by the fact that the operation came too late to save the life of one of the hostages, American Tom Fox. His body was found two weeks ago.

All four men came to Baghdad last year to work for a pacifist organization, the Christian Peacemakers Team. They were taken hostage by a group demanding the release of Iraqi prisoners held by U.S. forces.

Mr. MacKay said yesterday's rescue involved close co-operation between the governments of Britain, the United States and Iraq. The final raid was led by the British.

Canadian intelligence officers involved at various times included specialists from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment, a secretive branch of the Defence Department that intercepts international telecommunications.

The Foreign Affairs Department combed its ranks to find staff who had experience with these types of situations, The Canadian Press reported. They dispatched a team in early December that included foreign officers, workers from the Jordanian embassy and some RCMP officers.

That team stayed in Baghdad through Christmas and into this year.

Liberal MP Dan McTeague, a former parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad, said the group discreetly made inquiries around Baghdad about the disappearance.

They also communicated again and again that the hostages were Canadian, they were humanitarian workers and that Canada was not party to the war.

"This was a remarkable international effort involving our allies, the Americans, the British and the Iraqis," Mr. MacKay said. "This is certainly a great day for Canadians."

But the new Conservative government is keeping a tight lid on operational details on the advice of federal security experts. They warn that talk of Canadian military activity in Iraq can make Canadians targets for terrorists.

The security experts also say that they want to keep techniques secret that might be needed again if another rescue operation ever has to be mounted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hinted broadly at Canadian military involvement at a news conference earlier in the day. "I'm not free to say more than that because of national security." He also denied a suggestion that any ransom had been paid. "Not that I'm aware of."

Now that the hostages are free, the Canadians will pack up and leave the Iraqi capital, he said.

U.S. military officers in Baghdad said the big break in the case came when the coalition got information early yesterday from a prisoner about the location of the hostages. The raid took place three hours later.

Mr. Harper said that with the time differences, he got a call in the early morning hours in Ottawa that the hostages were free. He spoke with the two Canadians by phone and they were elated. The men have obviously been through an ordeal and are going to continue to face post-traumatic difficulties, he said. Mr. Harper said he suggested to the men that they get a hot bath and lots of sleep in the next few days.

The Christian Peacemakers Team was operating in Baghdad despite travel warnings from Ottawa and other governments that Iraq is a war zone that is not safe for foreigners.


It's good to know that the Canadians weren't stupid enough to try and pay off the kidnappers like Italy, France and Germany. They sent in the Mounties. Good for them.


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