An anxious vigil turned to joy for Christian peace activists in Iraq Thursday, as three of their kidnapped colleagues were freed by US, British, and Iraqi forces west of Baghdad.
"It's great to be free," Mr. Kember said, according to a British Embassy statement. "I'm looking forward to getting back to the UK."
The hostages' four-month ordeal ended without a shot being fired, as coalition forces pursued intelligence gained from a detainee. The three men - Briton Norman Kember and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) - were found alone and unguarded.
Concern for the Peacemakers' fate had mounted after the body of American Tom Fox, kidnapped with the others on Nov. 26 by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, was found earlier this month.
"It's pretty momentous for us, because after Tom's death we heard nothing at all," says Maxine Nash of CPT in Baghdad. "Until that point, we had been very hopeful. Given who we are, we thought people would respect that and release people. That was our lowest point."
US military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said Thursday that coalition forces had acted within three hours of receiving "actionable intelligence" from a detainee about the hostages' location.
"From the time we found the intelligence to the time we released the hostages, was three hours," General Lynch said. The captives were bound, but "there were no kidnappers in the area."
Wire agencies reported Interior Ministry sources as saying that the captives were found northwest of Baghdad in an area known for insurgent activity.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the operation was conducted after "weeks and weeks of very careful work." Defense chief John Reid said that British units "spearheaded" the operation.
"We had longed for the day when all four men would be released together," the CPT codirector Doug Pritchard said in Toronto. "Our gladness today is bittersweet due to the fact that Tom is not alive to join his colleagues in this celebration."
"They knew that their only protection was in the power of the love of God and of their Iraqi and international co-workers," Mr. Pritchard said. "We believe that the illegal occupation of Iraq by multinational forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping, and so much pain and suffering in Iraq. The occupation must end."
Insurgents and gangs have kidnapped more than 250 foreigners - among them Jill Carroll, a freelance writer for The Christian Science Monitor, who began her 76th day of captivity Thursday. Thousands of Iraqis have been kidnapped, most for ransom; 40 foreign hostages have been killed.
Ms. Carroll's family said Thursday that they were "thrilled" to hear of the CPT members' release. "Although their case is unrelated to Jill's, their release gives us new hope that Jill, too, will soon be freed. We send our best wishes to these three men and their families, knowing that their reunion will be a joyful one." They added that "we are also thinking of the family of Tom Fox at this time and send them our heartfelt sympathy."
The release came on a violent day in Baghdad, with a string of bombs killing at least 33 people.
The CPT team was kidnapped while planning to visit the Muslim Scholars Association group, run by hard-line Sunni cleric Harith al-Dari. The kidnappers put out a video demanding that all prisoners be released by Dec. 8, or the captives would be killed.
A second video on Jan. 28 warned of a "last chance" and showed the wan hostages. A third video in March raised alarm because Mr. Fox was absent. His body was found three days later.
"When you don't know the 'why,' you start wondering, and that leads to other [negative] thoughts," says Ms. Nash. "So we are just so happy."
The Peacemaker Teams, in Iraq since October 2002, have continued their work during the past four months. All are aware of the risks. "We can't be peacemakers with half a heart," CPT member Cathy Breen told the BBC in Amman, Jordan. "We have to take risks."