TORONTO - The Iraqi group holding four Christian activists hostage, including two Canadians, has extended the deadline on its threat to kill them by two days, according to an organization which monitors terrorist websites.
Wednesday afternoon, at about the time terrorists holding the four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams had threatened to begin killing their captives, the Washington-based SITE institute said it had found a terrorist video of two shackled and blindfolded hostages pleading for their lives.
The video, which SITE director Rita Katz says was hidden on a secret directory on the Internet, was accompanied by a statement from the Swords of Truth Brigade extending the deadline to Saturday to allow the British and U.S. governments to respond to their demands.
"Let the whole world know that we stick by our legitimate demands," the statement said.
"We heard the British Foreign Minister's statement and to prove to the world that he is not serious and to prevent every liar from deceiving the world, we extend the ultimatum two more days in order to see who is serious and who is a liar."
Earlier this week, Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, said, "If the hostage-takers have anything to say to the U.K. government or other governments, we're always ready to listen."
The video shows U.S. hostage Tom Fox, 54, and Briton Norman Kember, 74, with their wrists in shackles in front of them. They are blindfolded and wear bright-orange jumpsuits.
The two Canadian hostages, James Loney, a 41-year-old mediation expert from Toronto, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, a former Montreal resident, now a student in New Zealand, do not appear. The Canadians were shown in two earlier videos, sitting unshackled on the floor, eating and thanking their kidnappers for treating them well.
The U.S. and British hostages, whose countries both have troops in Iraq, appear to be receiving harsher treatment than the Canadians.
In Wednesday's video, Fox, a Virginian who works full-time for Christian Peacemaker Teams, called on Americans to plead for their release and the release of the Iraqi people from the "oppression" of occupying troops. "We are all suffering from the same thing and that is the occupation of the American troops and British troops which have brought these conditions and brought the Iraqi people to the condition they are in. I ask the people of America to do what they can to free us all from captivity.
"The only way we can all be free is for the American and British soldiers to leave Iraq," he added, after someone off screen prompted him.
Kember, a retired medical professor, made similar pleas and challenged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to withdraw his country's troops.
Wednesday's developments came as thousands of people around the world held candlelight vigils and prayer meetings to demand the hostages' release.
In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Loney's family made an emotional plea for his release.
"We want James home," his brother Matthew said. "We want the other members home. And we want a peaceful resolution to how things are going over there."
The family said it remains "hopeful about the whole scenario" and the situation remains "fluid and dynamic."
Peace activists worldwide, including Muslim religious and political leaders, even members of Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, have publicly urged the Iraqi hostage-takers to release their Christian captives.
Also on Wednesday, Abu Qatada, a Muslim cleric regarded as al-Qaeda's spiritual head in Europe, issued a video message from his British jail cell.
"I urge my brothers, the Brigades of the Swords of Righteousness in Iraq, to release (the hostages) in line with the principle of mercy of our religion," he said.
But Straw reiterated it is impossible to meet the kidnappers' demands.
"We've had no contact (with the kidnappers) but we are obviously aware of their so-called demands," he said on his way into a meeting of European foreign ministers. "These are demands which no government could meet."
CanWest News Service
I am afraid I have nothing further to report. We work and pray for a satisfactory outcome."
Wednesday night, as the first deadline approached, special prayer services were held for the hostages.
They ranged from a multi-faith vigil on English Bay Beach in Vancouver to a 24-hour private prayer marathon attended by 30 people in a Toronto home to a "fast for peace" in Indianapolis. There were church services in a dozen cities in Italy, New Zealand and Britain.
The Christian Peacemaker Teams have set up an online petition calling for the hostages' release. By Wednesday afternoon more than 27,000 people had signed it.
"We truly believe that out of this very difficult moment an explosion of goodness will come," said William Payne, a Toronto spokesman for Christian Peacemaker Teams.
The Loney family said it was "truly touched" by the outpouring of support, especially from Muslims.
"Our James" would have been overwhelmed, said Kathleen Weir, Loney's sister.
"This is what he always wanted to do. He feels he has to speak for those who are marginalized, for those he feels that others have forgotten."
In Saskatoon, law student Grant Pattullo and his wife Jasmine have made a makeshift altar in the corner of their apartment to Loney. They met him when they were farmers near Durham, Ont., near Toronto.
Loney was working with the poor, addicts, homeless people and illegal immigrants, says Pattullo. "We'd take food from our market garden down to them, and then they brought people up to our farm to get a holiday from the city, something most poor people will never get."
Loney even came to live with the couple in 2002, helping to renovate their house for hosting guests, he says.
Thousands of Arabs met Loney during his tours of duty in Iraq and Palestine, and are now campaigning for his release, says Pattullo.