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Kidnapped CARE director pleads for her life on video

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Appearing on video haggard and terrified, the kidnapped director of CARE International's Iraq operations made a desperate plea for her life Friday, urging British Prime Minister Tony Blair to withdraw troops from Iraq so she could win freedom from her captors.

"This might be my last hours," a weeping Margaret Hassan said in a video broadcast on the Arab television network Al-Jazeera. "Please help me."

Hassan was kidnapped Tuesday in Baghdad as she headed to her office at CARE's Iraq operations, where she has worked since 1991. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, and her captors have not issued any formal demands.

The fact Hassan was targeted has mystified many who know her. She has lived in Iraq for 30 years, spent 25 of those years providing humanitarian relief to poverty-stricken Iraqis and was openly critical of the U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.

The wrenching, 40-second video showed a weary, distraught Hassan standing in front of a wall as she begged the British public to put pressure on Blair to pull Britain's troops from Iraq, as well as to rescind the decision to redeploy British troops to volatile areas south of Baghdad.

The redeployment of British troops will allow U.S. troops to mount a long-anticipated major offensive on insurgents holed up in the Sunni flashpoint city of Fallujah, Iraq.

"Britons, please ask Mr. Blair to pull out troops from Iraq," Hassan urged. "And don't bring the troops to Baghdad, because that is the reason that people like me and Mr. Bigley have been kidnapped.

"I don't want to die like Mr. Bigley," Hassan said, breaking down in tears and crying into a tissue. "Please, please, I beg of you. Please, Britons, help me."

Hassan, 52, was referring to Kenneth Bigley, a British engineer who was kidnapped Sept. 16. After briefly escaping his captors, he was recaptured and later beheaded. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group, Tawhid and Jihad, claimed responsibility for Bigley's slaying as well as the beheadings of two Americans who were abducted with him from the house they shared in Baghdad's wealthier al Mansour district.

At least 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq. At least 33 of the kidnap victims have been killed. Eight of those kidnapped have been women, all of whom have been released except for Hassan.

Hassan was on her way to work with her driver and a companion when gunmen in two cars blocked her car in front and behind, according to her husband, Tahsine Ali Hassan. The gunmen then dragged the driver and companion out and drove away with Hassan.

CARE suspended its operations in Iraq after Hassan's abduction. On Thursday, Ali Hassan made an impassioned plea for the release of his wife. "If this was for political reasons, I want to say that CARE is a humanitarian organization and has nothing to do with politics," he said. "My wife is apolitical, she is a humanitarian worker, and I ask you to release her."

Earlier this week, Blair agreed to a U.S. request for the redeployment of British troops from the southern city of Basra to volatile areas south of Baghdad so U.S. forces could undertake a major offensive in Fallujah to hunt down al-Zarqawi and quell the insurgency there ahead of national elections in January. About 850 British soldiers are involved in the redeployment.

The decision drew heavy criticism in Britain — even from Blair's own Labor Party — largely because opponents believed the shifting of troops was aimed at politically assisting President Bush ahead of the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Reacting to the broadcast of the video, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "I have the greatest sympathy for what her family is suffering. Margaret Hassan has spent more than 30 years working for the Iraqi people. We hope all Iraqis will join us in calling for her immediate release."

Also Friday, the Macedonian Foreign Ministry confirmed three Macedonian contractors kidnapped in Iraq Aug. 21 had been beheaded, The Associated Press reported. And Abdurrahman Yildirim, a Turkish welder kidnapped last week, escaped from his captors after they left a door open, AP reported his uncle as saying. Yildirim made his way to Iraqi and U.S. authorities and called his family in Turkey on Wednesday, the uncle said.