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Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
CANBERRA, Australia Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday he would not withdraw troops from Iraq as demanded by militants who claim to have taken two Australians hostage and threatened to execute them within 24 hours, a deadline that passed without word from the militants.
Australian officials were trying to determine the credibility of the claim, by a group calling itself the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army, that it had abducted two Australian security guards along with two Asians.
They also were trying to find out how many Australians are in Iraq and where they are.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said today that 229 Australians had been identified as being in Iraq and 202 had been accounted for.
The militant group in Iraq claimed it abducted the two Australians and two Asians on a road between Baghdad and Mosul.
"It could be several days before we find out whether Australians have been taken hostage or whether this is a hoax," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told reporters in Sydney.
Howard is running on a pro-American, anti-terror platform in elections scheduled for Oct. 9.
He has defied widespread public anger to send 2,000 troops to the invasion of Iraq last year and still has 880 military personnel in and around the country.
Howard has played down the impact of Iraq on his re-election prospects, while Labor Leader Mark Latham reiterated his party's commitment to the withdrawal of troops.
Jordanian truck driver shown as hostage on TV
The group, which called itself Brigades of Al-Tawhid Lions, gave the man's employer 48 hours to suspend its activities in Iraq.
The footage was broadcast a day after insurgents warned Jordanian truckers that they would be killed if they entered Iraq. The Islamic Army in Iraq accused Jordanian drivers of transporting supplies to American forces.
Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Shura Council of the Mujahedeen said in a tape obtained yesterday it would release a Turkish hostage who was working for the Americans and threatened to behead those who deal with the coalition forces here.
The tape showed five masked men, some holding guns, standing behind the apparent hostage. The man identified himself as Aytullah Gezmen and said he had been working with the U.S. forces for seven months.
He warned other Turks who want to work in Iraq with the American forces that they could be captured and killed, whether they are Muslims or not.
Marine who said he was kidnapped is back on duty
WASHINGTON U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun was returned to full duty at a North Carolina base yesterday, but the Marine Corps said it was still investigating his June disappearance from his Marine unit near Falluja and his contention he was kidnapped in Iraq.
"Medical authorities declared him to be fit for full duty late Monday, allowing Hassoun to return to duty in the brigade motor pool where he worked prior to his deployment to Iraq last February," the Marine Corps said in a statement from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
But Maj. Matt Morgan, a spokesman at Camp Lejeune, said the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) was still investigating the circumstances surrounding Hassoun's disappearance and subsequent release.
Officials said earlier that the NCIS was looking into whether Hassoun was abducted by militants in Iraq as suggested by a videotape, whether the abduction was a hoax or whether he had deserted.
"The NCIS investigation will determine what, if any, criminal action would be taken," Morgan said in a telephone interview. The Lebanese-born Hassoun told reporters in July after he was found in Beirut and returned to the United States that he was captured and held against his will and did not desert the military.
Hassoun was seen in a videotape, apparently held by militants, blindfolded with a sword poised over his head. An Islamic militant Internet site later claimed he had been beheaded. But he showed up unharmed at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on July 8.
An Iraqi Islamic extremist group said it freed Hassoun after he promised to quit the U.S. military and urge others to do so to escape their "predicament" in Iraq. But a Marine Corps spokesman said earlier that Hassoun had not expressed any reluctance to return to full duty.
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