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Freed Iraq hostage Sooden slips into New Zealand

Written by: Staff
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WELLINGTON, Mar 27 (Reuters) Freed Christian peace activist Harmeet Sooden slipped quietly back into New Zealand today after being held hostage for four months in Iraq.

Sooden, a Canadian citizen with residency in New Zealand where he has studied and has family, avoided reporters and a small group of supporters at Auckland airport.

''He is grateful for the efforts of all those involved in securing the release of himself and his fellow captives,'' a New Zealand Foreign Ministry statement issued on his behalf said.

Sooden, 32, and two other members of the Christian Peacemakers Teams -- Jim Loney, a Canadian, and Briton Norman Kember -- were freed unhurt by special forces from an unguarded house in a Sunni area to the west of Baghdad on Thursday.

''He would like to express his gratitude for the support and concern the group received from New Zealanders and Canadians throughout the ordeal,'' the statement said.

''He now asks to be allowed time and space to be reunited in private with his family and friends.'' University student Sooden would speak to the media about his captivity on Friday, the statement said.

Radio New Zealand reported that half a dozen supporters of Sooden had gathered at the airport for several hours before being told by authorities that he had already left.

Earlier, Prime Minister Helen Clark said Sooden should not go back to Iraq.

''My advice ... and the official government advice is do not go to Iraq, it's an extremely dangerous place, it's not a place for Kiwis to be going,'' she told Television New Zealand.

New Zealand opposed the US-led military action in Iraq without United Nations' sanction, but did send a detachment of engineers to help in reconstruction in 2004.

REUTERS SHB ND1128

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