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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Australian Muslim to aid hostage
Douglas Wood - taken from video shown on 6 May
Australia has vowed to try to secure Mr Wood's release
One of Australia's most senior Muslim leaders is heading to Iraq to attempt to secure the release of an Australian held by militants for more than a week.

Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali has already appealed on Arabic television for Douglas Wood's captors to set him free.

His family have also pledged to make a charitable donation to the people of Iraq to help secure his release.

Over the weekend, hostage-takers gave the Australian government 72 hours to start pulling its troops out of Iraq.

'Innocent man'

The offer of a payment is being sent with Sheikh Taj. Mr Wood's brother, Malcolm Wood, said the undisclosed sum was not a ransom.

"There has been no demand for a ransom," he told reporters in Canberra.

We empathise with those who have lost loved ones, lost jobs and lost hope
Malcolm Wood
"We empathise with those who have lost loved ones, lost jobs and lost hope. We are moved, therefore, to help and to share the burden."

Sheikh Taj said he regarded 63-year-old Douglas Wood as a "brother, a fellow Australian and an innocent man" who should not suffer because of politics.

The sheikh is one of the most influential figures in Australia's Muslim community.

Late last week, he contacted senior Sunni clerics in Baghdad, urging them to do what they could to secure the hostage's freedom.

Deadline threat

Sheikh Taj is expected to hold talks with government officials on his arrival in Iraq.

However, it is unclear how he intends to intervene or what sort of influence he will be able to wield.

At the weekend, new images of Mr Wood were broadcast on al-Jazeera television.

Suffering from a black eye and with his head shaved, the engineer said: "Move out of Iraq or I will be killed."

His captors gave Australia 72 hours to start pulling its forces out, but the video did not say what they would do if their demands were ignored.

Australia has about 1,000 military personnel in and around Iraq.

Prime Minister John Howard has said they will stay until their job is done and insists he will not cave in to threats by extremists.

In France, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said his government was working "in extremely difficult conditions" to free journalist Florence Aubenas, who has been held hostage for four months.

Ms Aubenas, who works for French newspaper Liberation, was seized in Baghdad on 5 January with her Iraqi guide. She was seen pleading for help in a video released on 1 March.

Muslims have had a long history in Australia

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