Magazine article Newsweek

A Market in Human Lives; Families around the World Hold Desperate Vigils, Waiting for Word from Terrorists Who Hold Their Loved Ones in Iraq. Some Kidnappers Want Money, and the Price Is Going Up

Magazine article Newsweek

A Market in Human Lives; Families around the World Hold Desperate Vigils, Waiting for Word from Terrorists Who Hold Their Loved Ones in Iraq. Some Kidnappers Want Money, and the Price Is Going Up

Article excerpt

Byline: Rod Nordland (With Christopher Dickey and Eric Pape in Paris, Eve Conant in Washington, Barbie Nadeau in Rome, Gameela Ismail in Cairo, Owen Matthews in Istanbul and Sarah Sennott in London)

The phone rang at 7:05 p.m. in Amman. Muhammed Ezza nearly knocked over a table as he grabbed the receiver. It was five minutes past the deadline that had been set by his brother's Iraqi abductors for a reply to their $500,000 ransom demand. Three dozen of Hisham Taleb Ezza's kinsmen--brothers, cousins and in-laws waited together last Wednesday evening in a room in the Jordanian capital. They had no way to scrape up such a fortune, but they were ready to empty their bank accounts, borrow against their pensions and sell their cars for anything they could raise. Hisham had been working in Baghdad as an accountant for Starlight, a transport company with U.S. military contracts in Iraq, when gunmen seized him on Oct. 2. Starlight's general director, a Jordanian named Muhammed Ajlouni, had quickly agreed to shut down the company's Iraqi operations, as the kidnappers ordered, but he said he couldn't raise a half-million dollars. "If you can't get the money," the kidnappers told the Ezzas, "kill Ajlouni instead." The family was given 72 hours to think it over.

But Wednesday's 7:05 call was not from the kidnappers. It was only Hisham's wife, frantic for news of her husband. "She's sitting there with two of their daughters on her lap, crying," Muhammed told the men sitting around him. There was nothing they could do but wait for the phone to ring again--and pray.

A score of families around the world were holding similarly desperate vigils last week. Their loved ones had fallen victim to one of Iraq's fastest-growing enterprises: kidnapping. Abduction as a terror tactic still gets the main share of international attention, as in the case of the British captive Kenneth Bigley. He was one of at least seven hostages beheaded by terrorists in Iraq last week, and his murder was videotaped by Tawhid and Jihad, an organization led by the notorious Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. So far, no fewer than 17 different groups have claimed responsibility for kidnapping foreigners in Iraq. Of roughly 150 foreign hostages altogether, about 40 have been killed and at least 20 are still being held. "Iraq is the Olympic stadium where the jihadists get to show off their specialties," says Giandomenico Pico, a former U.N. hostage negotiator.

The problem is compounded by the wildfire spread of abduction for profit. Ransom kidnappings have plagued the people of Iraq ever since the invasion. But in the past three months or so, criminal groups, inspired by the terrorists' kidnapping spree, have discovered that the going rate of $5,000 or $10,000 for an Iraqi hostage is nothing beside the money they can extort from foreigners. Italians welcomed the release of Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, the Italian aid workers who were dragged in broad daylight from their offices in downtown Baghdad on Sept. 7. But the joy has been soured by public confirmation that Italian authorities not only bargained with the kidnappers but apparently delivered a $1 million ransom. Now hostage prices are soaring. Last month a prosperous Jordanian businessman in Iraq haggled his kidnappers down to $80,000 from $1 million. Now Ezza's kidnappers are asking half a million for a bookkeeper.

Most of the 30-odd Coalition countries publicly supported a U.S.-sponsored pact, pledging not to pay ransom to terrorists. Still, few of the member states do anything to stop private negotiations. The Turkish government gave its blessing when a Turkish truckers' association caved in to hostage-takers and pulled its drivers out of Iraq. "The life of our citizens is more important," said a Turkish official who is working to free hostages. After Ezza's captors demanded $500,000, his family asked the Jordanian charge d'affaires in Baghdad what to do. "He said just try to negotiate a price you can pay," says Muhammed Ezza. …

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