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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 September, 2004, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Foreign truckers released in Iraq
Freed hostages at Kuwait airport
The freed men appear to be in good health
Militants in Iraq have freed seven foreign lorry drivers held hostage for more than a month in return for a ransom of $500,000 paid by their firm.

The men went to Kuwait, from where they were due to fly out of the region.

The Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company said it had paid out the sum to the militants, whom it described as "purely extortionists".

The seven - three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian - were abducted in July near the Iraqi city of Falluja.

Welcoming the release, India's top negotiator said his team had not "sacrificed any principles", but KGL said it had had no choice but to pay the ransom money.

The release of the men comes a day after another militant group in Iraq killed 12 Nepalese hostages.

Intensive diplomatic efforts are also continuing to free two French journalists being held in Iraq, with Pope John Paul II appealing for their release on Wednesday.

'No choice'

KGL's chief executive officer, Said Dashti, said the men were freed after a team of company employees drove under armed guard to an unspecified location in Iraq where the drivers were being held and paid out the money.

We thank the captors for sparing our boys
Harvinder Singh
Brother of Sukhdev Singh

The kidnappers - a previously unknown group calling itself the Black Banners brigade - had threatened to kill the men if the Kuwaiti firm did not pull out of Iraq and if Kenya failed to remove all its civilian contractors who are working there.

But Mr Dashti told the Associated Press news agency that they had dropped their political demands and agreed to $500,000 after initially demanding $6-7m.

Asked if he did not think that paying a ransom would encourage other kidnappers, he added: "Yes, but I had no other choice, the drivers are human beings and were trying to save their lives."

However, Indian Deputy Foreign Minister E Ahamed, who spearheaded the negotiations with the abductors, said the "collective efforts" of the negotiators had been "answered without sacrificing any principles".

Joy

One of the seven, Egyptian Mohammed Ali Sanad, told al-Arabiya television they had been told about their release two days ago.

The seven hostages held in Iraq
The kidnappers had threatened to kill the hostages one by one
"We felt very happy and we did not sleep out of our joy," he said.

The relatives of the Indian hostages began celebrating after news of their release was flashed on Indian television.

"We thank the captors for sparing our boys," said Harvinder Singh, elder brother of Sukhdev Singh.

In Kenya, government spokesman Alfred Mutua said the country was "ecstatic" at news of the release.

Appeals

Talks to free the men had frequently broken down.

The men were seized when their convoy of seven transport lorries entered a "prohibited zone" in Falluja and was stopped by the kidnappers.

Relatives of the captives had issued numerous appeals for their release, as had the Indian government.

Delhi also banned Indian citizens from going to Iraq.

None of the three countries has troops in Iraq, but nationals from each have taken jobs for private companies.

KGL said on Wednesday it intended to honour its contracts in Iraq and continue its work there.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Anya Sitaram
"Scenes of jubilation as well-wishers gathered to greet the freed hostages"



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