Iraq hostage claim may be hoax

The Department of Foreign Affairs says efforts are continuing to try to verify the claims that two Australians have been abducted and threatened with execution.

DFAT’s figures show there are 231 Australians in Iraq, and 220 of them have been accounted for.

A group known the Horror Brigades of the Islamic Secret Army released a leaflet on Monday, claiming it had seized two Australians and two Asians near the Iraqi town of Samarra.

It threatened to execute them unless Australia withdrew forces from Iraq within 24 hours.

The deadline passed last night with no further word and no names or photographs of the hostages have yet been released, raising suspicions it was a hoax.

The Federal Government has sent a team of Defence personnel to Iraq following the claims.

A number of police and other officials are also on their way to Baghdad, and hostage negotiators have been placed on standby.

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said a group claiming to have abducted the Australians used a leaflet drop to publicise their threat to execute them.

He said it was unusual for hostage takers to do a leaflet drop rather than publish information on a website.

“The leaflets have been obtained and translated and they are being analysed,” Mr Downer said.

“We are using all resources available to us, both with company contacts on the ground and have asked our US and UK allies to make us aware of any Australians that we are not aware of,” a DFAT spokeswoman said.

Mr Downer dismissed criticism about the government’s inability to pin down an exact number of workers in Iraq.

He said some people wanted to be registered with the embassy, while others did not and they could not be forced to do so.

The Islamic group has allegedly demanded that Mr Howard personally announce an end to Australia’s involvement in Iraq within 24 hours or the hostages would be executed.

Prime Minister Howard said he was becoming cautiously optimistic that a claim two Australians had been kidnapped in Iraq was a hoax.

Mr Howard also accused Labor of being petty for complaining that the government had sent a specialist team to Iraq to help rescue any hostages without consulting the opposition.

The opposition has criticised the government for not briefing it on the decision to dispatch a team to Iraq, despite caretaker conventions applying for national security during Australia’s election campaign.

Opposition Leader Mark Latham has savaged the government’s handling of national security arguing it was putting its own political interests ahead of those of the country.

Mr Latham said the government had breached caretaker provisions by failing to brief the opposition about a specialist team that has been sent to Iraq to deal with any hostage crisis.

“This is clear evidence of a government that is putting political interests ahead of national interests,” said Mr Latham.

“I’ve got to say I am jack of it. I’m jack of a government that is always putting political interests ahead of the national interest, playing politics instead of doing the right thing by this country’s security,” he said.

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