An Iraqi hostage negotiator who reportedly made contact with the kidnappers of Toronto peace activist James Loney and three other Western volunteers is believed to have been abducted himself.
A source told the Toronto Star the local negotiator has not been heard from since Thursday and had recently met face-to-face with members of the group believed to have kidnapped the activists.
The negotiator had worked in the past on other high-profile kidnappings, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Little has been said publicly about the fate of 41-year-old Loney, fellow Canadian Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, Briton Norman Kember, 74, and American Tom Fox, 54, since a deadline set by the kidnappers passed last Saturday. And their colleagues in Baghdad have heard nothing.
The men were kidnapped in Baghdad Nov. 26. They were there as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group dedicated to spreading peace in conflict zones.
The most recent video released by the kidnappers threatened to kill the four last Saturday if detainees in Iraqi and U.S. prisons were not freed.
The abductors identified themselves on the two videos they've released of the hostages as the Swords of the Righteous Brigade, a previously unknown organization. Rita Katz, director of the SITE Institute, a Washington-based organization that monitors terrorist websites, believes this name is a cover for another group.
The most recent video of the Christian Peacemaker hostages was uploaded onto a hidden website operated by the Islamic Army in Iraq, a very violent and high-profile insurgent group, Katz said.
"They've used that site in the past, so it's worrisome," Katz said in an interview.
In past cases, including the kidnapping of two French journalists who were later released, the Islamic Army in Iraq had claimed responsibility for the abductions. Upon their release, the group posted a statement saying the appeals from the Muslim community helped their case.
That has been the hope in this case as well, as Muslim leaders around the world have pleaded for the release of the four activists, stressing that they too oppose the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
But there has been no indication if those appeals have had any effect, and the potential abduction of the negotiator by the group is seen as ominous.
The wait has been especially agonizing for Christian Peacemaker Teams' three remaining workers at the Baghdad mission, who have had to reduce the scope of their activities as they await news on their friends and colleagues.
`We're hanging in there. We have a lot of faith that the guys are doing all right and that they will be released'
Greg Rollins, Christian Peacemaker Teams worker in Baghdad
"We're learning a lot about ourselves as this situation goes on," Greg Rollins of Surrey, B.C., told the Star in a telephone interview.
"We're learning the limits of our patience. We're learning how diplomatic we can be at times.
"And we're learning just how to be able to smile at a time like this."
The peacemakers' Baghdad team is also learning the depth of the Iraqi friendships they have built since founding their Iraq project prior to the start of the war in 2003. Rollins describes a flow of food into the house from friends and neighbours anxious to offer gestures of goodwill.
Two shopkeepers in the neighbourhood, he said, wept when they learned of the kidnappings.
"They've always looked out for us. But now our Iraqi neighbours are looking out for us even more intensely than they were before. Basically they're telling us, `Just give us the word and we'll make sure nobody comes to your door. We'll close the street,'" said Rollins.
"We're hanging in there. We have a lot of faith that the guys are doing all right and that they will be released. And obviously we are sending out every signal possible to make that happen.
"It kind of surprises us that we haven't heard a thing. But then, that too also gives us faith."
Rollins said he has had "minimal contact" with Canadian government investigators in Baghdad.
"I know the Canadians have a role in the investigation, but how intense or deep it is I really can't say. We just haven't had close contact. Basically, the governments involved are going about it their own way and we are going about it our own way."
Liberal MP Dan McTeague, the parliamentary secretary responsible for Canadians abroad, said yesterday he had not heard about the alleged abduction of a negotiator.
"It's news to me," said McTeague, MP for Pickering-Scarborough East.
"We continue to work with Iraqi authorities and (non-governmental organizations) and we're prepared to listen to anyone who can help us in the ultimate goal of having our hostages released."
The government reminds all Canadians to not travel to Iraq "under any circumstances," McTeague added.