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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK
Kidnapped: Iraq hostages remember
Noriaki Imai was just 18 years old and among the first to be kidnapped in Iraq.

He is just one of some 273 foreign hostages from 37 countries who have been taken and held against their will since the insurgency flared after the siege of Falluja in April 2004.

Japanese aid worker Noriaki Imai
Mr Imai has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder

Abducted along with two other Japanese nationals near Falluja in April last year, Mr Imai was lucky - all three hostages were released after a week in captivity.

But many of those taken by one of the 25 different Islamic groups that have claimed involvement have been killed.

The BBC's Panorama programme has interviewed seven people who were abducted and the families of three hostages who were killed.

Knife-edge

Their stories illustrate a new phenomenon of warfare that exploits individual civilians and uses as its tools television and the internet.

For Mr Imai, even remembering the experience is terrifying.

"I thought it would be a suicide bombing and this is how I would die," says Mr Imai, describing the moment they were surrounded by angry insurgents.

Later an insurgent held a knife to his throat as his captors filmed him.

Freed hostage French journalist Georges Malbrunot
We felt we were on planet Bin Laden
French hostage Georges Malbrunot

It turned out to be a cruel game - one of his fellow hostages realised the sharp side of the blade was pointing outwards.

"And then I slowly realised that I might survive," he remembers.

It is not just foreigners who are being snatched from the streets - Iraqis too are disappearing.

The wave of kidnappings is forcing skilled, educated people to leave their country rather than risk being held to ransom, contributing further to endangering Iraq's future.

Political row

Some kidnappings have reverberated across the international political sphere.

Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena was snatched from the streets of Baghdad in early February 2005.

Freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena
Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena's release sparked a political row

Her release, a month later, became more dramatic than her capture as the car she was travelling in came under fire from US troops.

The Italian secret agent who rescued her died in the shooting.

The incident sparked a transatlantic row and threatened to fracture relations between the US and a key European ally.

"Only a few minutes before I thought I was free and then the man who freed me was dead - it was terrible, terrible, terrible," says Mrs Sgrena, who was badly wounded in the shooting.

Insight

French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were abducted in August 2004 while driving to the city of Najaf with their Syrian driver.

Both Arabic speakers, they asked to interview the leader of an Islamic militant cell within the group that had seized them.

"We felt we were on planet Bin Laden," says Mr Malbrunot.

The insurgent they spoke to had trained with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

He told them they supported US President George W Bush because his presidency meant "there will be confrontation, occupation and radicalisation of the Iraqi people."

Nine videos were made of the men as part of tortuous negotiations for their freedom.

Reports have swirled about ransom payments made to secure the release of the two men, but French authorities have always denied that there was any exchange of money.

"We know that in other cases it is not unusual but in our case I do not know," says Mr Malbrunot "but the most important thing is to bring back the hostage".

'No way out'

Sixty-two-year-old Ken Bigley, a British engineer working in Iraq, was killed by his captors three weeks after he was captured in September 2004.

Afterwards they released harrowing footage showing his beheading.

A pair of videos given to the Bigley family through intermediaries before his death only heightened the horror.

Images of a clean-shaven, relaxed Mr Bigley were soon replaced by pictures of a terrified man, pleading for his life, says his brother, Phil.

"It switched everything around and it brought us full circle again. This was more of a definite horror and a reality that there's no way out of this, there's absolutely no way out."

Panorama - Hostage was broadcast on BBC One at 2100 BST on Wednesday 29 June.


SEE ALSO:
Freed hostage tells of killings
26 Jun 05 |  Middle East
Iraq hostages: Facts and figures
04 Mar 05 |  Middle East
Italian hostage blasts US report
26 Apr 05 |  Americas
Who are Iraq's hostage-takers?
16 Sep 04 |  Middle East
Japan hostages home after ordeal
18 Apr 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Iraq's forgotten hostages
31 Aug 04 |  Middle East



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