BAGHDAD – Negotiations to free a CBS News journalist seized in the southern Iraqi city of Basra a week ago are being held up over discussions about how he should be released, a leading Shi’ite militia group said on Sunday.
The British journalist, who has not been named, and his interpreter were seized from a hotel in the centre of Basra last week. The interpreter was freed on Wednesday and negotiators had been confident the journalist would also be quickly released.
Asked what the stumbling block was, Hareth al-Athari, a spokesman for Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, told Reuters: “Finding the right place and the right time.”
Athari, the head of the cleric’s Basra office which has been involved in the negotiations, said the kidnappers were wary of being caught by police when handing over the reporter.
He added the kidnappers’ identities were still not known.
Basra has been at the centre of tensions between Sadr’s powerful Mehdi Army militia and supporters of a Shi’ite rival, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, as both seek to gain control of the mainly Shi’ite south and its oil wealth.
The city, Iraq’s second largest, was put under British control after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion until security responsibility was handed over to Iraqi authorities in December.
Last August, Sadr, who led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004, ordered his followers to observe a six-month ceasefire. However the U.S. military says rogue elements, which it accuses Iran of supporting, have ignored the freeze.
The journalist for the U.S. network CBS is the latest member of the media to have been caught up in the violence that has engulfed Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion.
In August 2005, Steve Vincent, a freelance U.S. journalist was found shot dead in Basra four days after he wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times criticizing the spread of Shi’ite Islamist fundamentalism in the city.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called the Iraq war “the deadliest conflict for journalists in recent history,” with 126 journalists and 50 support workers killed since 2003.