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Fate of aid worker in the balance as date with Zarqawi looms
Updated: 2004-11-04 20:40

The fate of kidnapped aid worker Margaret Hassan hung in the balance as a deadline approached to hand her over to a group led by Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi unless British troops left Iraq.

The captors of the British-Irish woman threatened Tuesday to deliver her to Iraq's most ruthless band of kidnappers, who have already beheaded a string of foreigners, unless their demands were met in 48 hours.

Britain has made no public response to the threat, which came as hundreds of British soldiers settled into a new base outside Baghdad on a US-requested mission to free up US soldiers for an anticipated assault on other hotspots.

Hassan, the head of leading charity CARE International in Iraq, is one of the highest-profile victims in a scourge of kidnappings that has plagued the country.

The 59-year-old, who has spent 30 years in Iraq and is married to an Iraqi, has appeared in three videos since her abduction in Baghdad on October 19.

Her condition has deteriorated with each viewing and Arabic television network Al-Jazeera opted against airing much of the most recent images on Tuesday due to the "condition of the hostage".

In the video, the kidnappers pledged to turn Hassan over to Zarqawi unless Britain pulled its 8,500 troops out of Iraq within 48 hours.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and three of Hassan's sisters made a joint appeal for the aid worker's release following the threat, while CARE's Australian branch, which employs her, also begged anew for her freedom.

Despite being born in Ireland and raised in Britain, Hassan has dedicated her life to helping the people of Iraq, where --through her husband -- she has citizenship and is even said to speak Arabic with an Iraqi accent.

Her kidnapping triggered outrage in Iraq, which she calls home.

On October 25, hundreds of disabled Iraqis on crutches and in wheelchairs begged for Hassan's release, saying their lot has worsened since her abduction.

Gathered outside the now shuttered Baghdad office of CARE International, many clutched photographs of the aid director, who appeared on a videotape three days earlier urging British troops to leave Iraq to save her life.

"Please help me, please help me, these might be my last hours," a sobbing Hassan said on the tape broadcast by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television.

"Please the British people ask Mr Blair to take the troops out of Iraq and not to bring them here to Baghdad. That's why people like Mr Bigley and myself are being caught and maybe we will die. I will die like Mr Bigley," she said.

Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda Group of Jihad in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq) beheaded Bigley last month after he was abducted in Baghdad in September with two US contractors. They also met the same grisly fate.

Although several other foreign women have been kidnapped in Iraq most have been released and none have been beheaded.

A large question mark hangs over the fate of a Polish woman, also married to an Iraqi, who was abducted late last month.


Teresa Borcz, 54, has appealed to Poland to withdraw its troops from Iraq -- a requst that Warsaw has refused.

Some 160 foreigners have been seized since April, and more than 30 of them have been killed by their captors.

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