Missing CBS journalists could be 'free in hours'

Negotiators have struck a deal to release two CBS News journalists missing, believed kidnapped, in Iraq and they could be free in hours, a leading Shi’ite militia group and the United States military said on Wednesday.

“We held talks with the kidnappers. They will be released,” said Hareth al-Athari, the head of the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Basra office, without giving details of when the pair would be freed.

“We are hopeful they will be released in the coming days if not hours,” US military spokesperson Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters.

US network CBS said on Monday two of their journalists had gone missing in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Police in Basra said the men, a British journalist and an interpreter, were seized from a city centre hotel.

Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, was put under British control after the 2003 US-led invasion until security responsibility was handed over to Iraqi authorities in December.
Britain retains a military base at the airport.

“We have a dispute with the British forces in Basra but that doesn’t mean we have a dispute with the British people,” Athari told reporters.

Basra has been at the centre of tensions between al-Sadr’s powerful Mehdi Army militia and supporters of Shi’ite rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, as both seek to gain control of the mainly Shi’ite south and its oil wealth.

Last August al-Sadr, who led two uprisings against US forces in 2004, ordered his followers to observe a six-month ceasefire to allow his splintered organisation to regroup. The truce is credited with helping improve security across Iraq.

The cleric has come under pressure from some within his movement not to renew the freeze because the US military is actively pursuing what it calls “rogue” Mehdi Army members.

Washington has accused Iran of supplying weapons and training for Shi’ite militias in Iraq, including sophisticated bombs used to kill US troops. Tehran denies the accusations.

The CBS journalists are the latest members of the media to have been caught in the violence that has engulfed the country since the invasion.

On Tuesday, the body of a local journalist was found in central Baghdad two days after being kidnapped, Iraq’s Journalistic Freedoms Observatory said in a statement.

In August 2005, Steve Vincent, a freelance US journalist was found shot dead in Basra four days after he wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times criticising the spread of Shi’ite Islamist fundamentalism in the city.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in a recent report called the Iraq war “the deadliest conflict for journalists in recent history,” with 125 journalists and 49 support workers killed since the invasion. - Reuters

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