Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 13:12 UK

Was UK hostages strategy right?

By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Four of the five hostages
The five hostages were taken in May 2007

The news that two of the five British hostages held in Iraq since 2007 are dead has prompted questions about the government's handling of this crisis.

Even the Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted at the weekend that the deaths represented "a failure".

There have been accusations - rebutted by the Foreign Office - that it should have been more proactive in trying to secure the men's release. So here are some of the key questions:

Has the UK government done all it could to secure the hostages' release?

On Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government had left "no stone unturned in its efforts to release the hostages and to work with the Iraqi authorities to use all possible means to free them".

However, since these efforts have been conducted almost entirely in secret it is hard to ascertain what they are and whether they offer the best chances of success.

Who is doing the negotiating?

The Foreign Office says there are no direct negotiations between the British government and the kidnappers and that the Iraqi government is the lead negotiator.

A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted on Monday as denying this.

Who are the kidnappers and what do they want?

Initially they called themselves The Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq. Now they have adopted the name Asa'ib Ahl Al-Haqq meaning literally the Bands of the People of Righteousness.

They are an obscure fringe militia, also known as "a special group", that split off from the more mainstream Shia militia, the Jaysh Al-Mahdi.

They are demanding the release of up to nine of their associates held in US military custody since early 2007.

On 6 June one of these prisoners, Layth Al-Khaz'ali, was handed over by the Americans to the Iraqi authorities who released him the following day.

With the US military drawing down its forces in Iraq it is likely that they will all be handed over eventually to Iraqi custody.

Has the Foreign Office chosen the right approach in going for minimal publicity?

The kidnappers made an explicit demand early on that they wanted no publicity and no media involved (although they themselves have subsequently issued a number of hostage videos accompanied by statements).

The low-profile nature of this story, punctuated by these intermittent videos and occasional appeals by the men's families, contrasts strongly with the very public campaigns adopted during the detention of other Middle East hostages like John McCarthy, Norman Kember and Margaret Hassan.

However, there is no clear pattern of success or failure here.

John McCarthy was eventually released from captivity in Lebanon, Norman Kember was rescued by British Special Forces in Iraq and Margaret Hassan was murdered by her captors despite a concerted public campaign to save her.



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