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Freed Iraq hostage Sooden says ransom likely paid

Written by: Staff

WELLINGTON, Mar 31 (Reuters) A Christian peace activist freed after four months held hostage in Iraq today said he believed a ransom was paid to secure his release.

Asked if he thought a ransom had been paid, Harmeet Sooden said: ''I think it's highly likely, highly probable''.

Sooden, a Canadian citizen who lives in New Zealand, said he had no firm evidence to suggest a ransom had been paid but ''instinct'' suggested it had.

''They kept telling us that ''if we wanted to kill you, you wouldn't have been given the treatment you have been given'.'' Last week Sooden, 33, and two other members of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemakers Teams -- Jim Loney, a Canadian, and Briton Norman Kember -- were freed unhurt by special forces from an unguarded house in a Sunni Muslim area west of Baghdad.

A fourth hostage, American Tom Fox, had earlier been found shot dead.

Sooden said he disapproved of paying ransoms to secure the release of hostages.

''I wanted to be released. I didn't want money to be paid for me to be released because I know where that money's going to go,'' Sooden said.

''I'd rather it went on social work or feeding people who need food, not on killing people,'' he said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her government had not paid a ransom.

''We did keep very close to the Canadian authorities and we would be surprised if we hadn't heard of any such developments,'' Clark told Radio New Zealand.

''We do understand the Canadian government policy is the same as ours with respect to ransoms, which is they don't pay them.'' The captors, a group calling themselves the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, said the hostages would be killed unless all Iraqi prisoners were freed.

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

Reuters LR BD1425

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