Colleagues of kidnapped Western contractors plead for their release

Dubai (AsiaNews/Agencies)  - Colleagues of three Western construction contractors who were snatched from their homes in Iraq pleaded for their release Tuesday, a day after one of the three was purportedly beheaded by his kidnappers. A man who identified himself only as an Iraqi engineer working in Baghdad, called the AP in Dubai, saying he wanted to read a prepared statement:   "On behalf of myself and the workers of the company, the colleagues of the kidnapped engineers, we call on you, believing in God and his mercy, to release them".

The man, his voice sounding strained, refused to give details about himself, his coworkers or his company, the General Supplies and Commercial Services. He said they feared they would be targeted next by the terrorists who kidnapped Americans Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley and Briton Kenneth Bigley.

A video posted Monday on a Web site showed the gruesome beheading of a man identified as Armstrong, purportedly killed by key terror suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The tape threatened to kill another hostage within 24 hours. An earlier videotape issued by Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group had threatened to behead the three men Monday unless Iraqi women were released from two U.S.-controlled prisons in Iraq. All three men worked for General Supplies and Commercial Services and were snatched Thursday from their Baghdad home.

The statement from their colleagues said the three hostages were civil engineers who worked on housing projects owned by the Iraqi Electricity Ministry, and were not involved in any military activities.

"They have insisted on remaining (in Iraq) to complete the project, believing that they were working for the interest of the beleaguered Iraqi people, in an attempt to alleviate the people's suffering," the statement said.

The Iraqi engineer said the men were planning on leaving Iraq by the end of this month "to return to their homes and their simple families, who have loved Iraq and its people through them."

Armstrong was known as "a good guy", interested in Arabic culture and with many Arab friends. Jack Hensley is a father of a 13 year-old daughter. Kenneth Bigley , 62 , is said to be a generous man who has warmly embraced Islamic culture during decades in the Middle East.

"We plead for your mercy, compassion and forgiveness," his statement concluded.

The called added fellow workers were in "extreme shock and sorrow" after hearing the news of Armstrong's beheading.

Tawhid and Jihad  -  Arabic for "Monotheism and Holy War" - has claimed responsibility for the slaying of three hostages in the past, including the beheading of American Nicholas Berg, who was abducted in April. The group has also said it is behind a number of bombings and gun attacks.

More than 130 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, and at least 26 of them have been executed. Iraqis have also faced an epidemic of kidnappings since the fall of Saddam Hussein last year, in many cases for ransom.