Envoy in Iraq says ready to listen to kidnappers

BAGHDAD Thu Jun 7, 2007 4:05pm BST

1 of 3. A security personnel stands guard at the entrance of the British embassy in Baghdad, June 7, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Khalid Mohammed/Pool

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The ambassador to Iraq said on Thursday he was willing to listen to the kidnappers of five Britons abducted in Baghdad last week but ruled out negotiating with them.

"We have people here in Iraq who are ready to listen to any person about this incident, or any person who may be holding these men and who may wish to communicate," envoy Dominic Asquith said at a news conference.

"I am greatly concerned about these five men. I ask those holding them to release them so they may return to their families. We will do everything in our power to help them and their families and see them reunited."

The five Britons -- a computer consultant and his four bodyguards -- were snatched from a Finance Ministry data processing centre by gunmen wearing police commando uniforms.

Iraqi government officials say they suspect Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and believe the abduction may be in retaliation for the killing of a militia leader in southern Iraq by British-backed Iraqi special forces.

Asquith made clear that his willingness to listen to the kidnappers did not open a door to any negotiations.

"The British government's policy on these matters is clear and well known. We do not condone these actions."

A British embassy official later emphasised there had been no change in policy. "We are still not willing to negotiate," she said.

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers hunting for the hostages have staged raids in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Mehdi Army.

Media have reported that British special forces are also on stand-by in Baghdad for any possible rescue bid. Norman Kember, the last Briton taken hostage in Iraq, was freed by the elite Special Air Services in March 2006.

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