Australian Muslim leader offers Iraq hostage swap

CANBERRA (Reuters) — Australian Muslim leader Sheikh Taj Al Din Al Hilali has offered himself to Iraqi militants in exchange for the freedom of Australian hostage Douglas Wood.
A video tape of Hilali’s offer to swap himself for Wood — a 63-year-old engineer held hostage for more than three weeks — has been given to television stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Hilali’s spokesman Kayser Trad told Reuters on Thursday.

“He has said that if (the militants) produce a fresh video showing that Mr Wood is still alive and well then he will agree to go to them and allow himself to be taken in provided Mr Wood is released,” Trad said.

“It would be a straight swap, so Mr Wood can be freed to receive medical treatment.”

Hilali travelled to Baghdad this month to help free Wood and said last week he had spoken by telephone with a man identifying himself as the Australian hostage. Hilali is no longer in Iraq but remains in the Middle East.

Trad said the militants had told Hilali last week they would release Wood when there was a lull in fighting in Iraq.

“He’s been told by his contacts that there’s nothing more he can do within Iraq, but he’s frustrated so he’s just pushing their hand at the moment, trying to get them to release Mr Wood sooner rather than later,” Trad said.

No hostages, full stop

A spokesman for Wood’s family told Reuters they were aware of al-Hilali’s offer and appreciative of his efforts to free Wood.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on Thursday the government remained determined to free Wood.

“We hope we can achieve an unconditional release of Douglas Wood. We appreciate that Sheikh Hilali’s making an effort to assist in getting the release of Douglas Wood, and we appreciate all the efforts being made,” Downer told reporters.

“But we don’t want to see Australians held hostage, full stop.”

Downer has said that Wood, who is married to an American, may have been kidnapped a few days before May 1 when a two-minute video was delivered to news agencies.

The militants have demanded Australia begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq or they would kill Wood. Australia’s conservative government, a staunch US ally and among the first to join the war on Iraq two years ago, has refused to give in.

A new batch of 450 Australian troops has been deployed in southern Iraq to provide security and to train the Iraqi army, taking Australia’s total troop numbers in and around Iraq to about 1,400.

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