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Insurgent video shows peace activists taken hostage in Iraq; photos show German hostage

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Al-Jazeera broadcast an insurgent video Tuesday showing four peace activists taken hostage in Iraq, with a previously unknown group claiming responsibility for the kidnappings.

The Swords of Righteousness Brigade said the four were spies working undercover as Christian peace activists, Al-Jazeera said. The station said it could not verify any of the information on the tape.

The aid group Christian Peacemaker Teams has confirmed that four of its members were taken hostage Saturday.

German television broadcast photos Tuesday showing a blindfolded German woman being led away by armed captors in Iraq. Six Iranian pilgrims, meanwhile, were abducted by gunmen north of Baghdad.

The pictures of Susanne Osthoff were taken from a video in which her captors demanded that Germany stop any dealings with Iraq's government, according to Germany's ARD television. Germany has ruled out sending troops to Iraq and opposed the U.S.-led war.

Two U.S. soldiers assigned to Task Force Baghdad were killed when their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb north of the capital, the U.S. command said.

At least 2,109 members of the U.S. military have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

A suicide car bomber killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounding five more when he drove into an army patrol Tuesday in Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, police Lt. Ali Hussein said. A U.S. Army medical helicopter helped evacuate the wounded, he added.

Iraq was rocked by a wave of foreigner kidnappings and beheadings in 2004 and early 2005, but they have dropped off in recent months as many Western groups have left and security precautions for those who remain have tightened. Insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq, seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38 — including three Americans.

The tape broadcast by Al-Jazeera showed four men and a British passport belonging to Norman Kember. The British government and the Christian Peacemaker Teams have both said Kember, a 74-year-old Briton, was among the four activists taken hostage.

Christian Peacemaker Teams said it would not identify the other three people for their protection.

A white-haired man shown in the passport photograph also was seen sitting on the floor next to three other men in the video, which had a date stamp indicating it was recorded Sunday.

The corner of the video showed two, crossed black swords and the name of the insurgent group written in red Arabic script.

Christian Peacemaker Teams issued a statement Tuesday saying the four men were working on behalf of Iraqi civilians. The group said it has had a team in Iraq since October 2002, working with U.S. and Iraqi detainees and training others in nonviolent intervention and human rights documentation.

Kember and another person were part of a visiting delegation, while two members of the group's Iraq-based staff also were taken, the statement said.

Kember, a retired professor, is a longtime peace activist who once fretted publicly that he was taking the easy way out by protesting in safety at home while British soldiers risked their lives in Iraq.

The U.S. Embassy has confirmed that an American is missing in Iraq — presumably one of the aid workers. A Canadian official has said two Canadians were in the group.

"The team's work has focused on documenting and focusing public attention on detainee abuses, connecting citizens of Iraq to local and international human rights organizations, and accompanying Iraqi civilians as they interact with multinational military personnel and Iraq's government officials," the group said.

The statement said those taken hostage knew the risks when they went to Iraq.

The organization said it "does not advocate the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a conflict situation."

In Barcelona, Spain, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had contacted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hohshyar Zebari about Kember's abduction, and that Zebari "pledged every assistance from the Iraqi government."

Osthoff and her driver have been missing since Friday and, "according to current information, we have to assume it is a kidnapping," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin.

She added that the Foreign Ministry has set up a crisis team to help secure the pair's release.

"The German government will do everything in its power to bring both back to safety," Merkel said.

Osthoff, 43, is a fluent Arab speaker and a trained archaeologist who has worked since 1998 for the Munich-based management consulting firm FaktorM, which said on its Web site that she has "organized and supported the distribution of aid goods in Iraq since 1991." She was in Iraq working to help German organizations distribute medicine and medical supplies.

"One can only hope and keep their fingers crossed and remain optimistic," her mother, Ingrid Hala, told Germany N24 news station.

Hala said she had not heard from her daughter for about five years, and her uncle, Peter Osthoff, said his niece had broken almost all ties with her family, including a daughter who will be 12 in December.

"She has almost no contact with any relatives," he told The Associated Press.

Germany's Central Council of Muslims called for Osthoff's immediate release.

The Iranian pilgrims were abducted Tuesday morning near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, police Maj. Falah Mohammedawi said, but it was not clear if the six were going to or coming from Samarra, a central city that houses a shrine to two Shiite saints.

Iraq and Iran, predominantly Shiite countries, reached an agreement earlier this year on pilgrim visits, which excludes trips to Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Samarra because of the dangerous security situation. The pilgrims appear to have been violating that agreement.

Insurgents have kidnapped aid workers, journalists and contractors in an attempt to drive foreigners out of the country or to win large ransoms.

Since May, abductions have fallen off considerably, mainly because many Western groups left Iraq and security precautions for those remaining have been tightened, with foreigners staying in barricaded compounds and moving only in heavily guarded convoys.

The last American to be kidnapped was Jeffrey Ake, a contract worker from LaPorte, Ind., who was abducted April 11. He was seen in a video aired days afterward, held with a gun to his head, but there has been no word on his fate.

Associated Press reporter David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.