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Romania Hostages Said Victims of Bad Plan

June 6, 2005

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ Romania’s president said Monday the three Romanian journalists who spent nearly two months in captivity in Iraq were victims of a botched kidnapping plan by their Iraqi-American guide and a Syrian-born businessman.

President Traian Basescu, who headed a crisis team that worked to free the journalists, provided the first play-by-play account of the kidnapping at a news conference where he detailed contacts between Romanian negotiators and the kidnappers.

The president revealed for the first time one of the tensest moments in the 55-day ordeal _ when the captors said they were going to provide a Web site where they would broadcast footage of the hostages being decapitated. He also disclosed a Romanian offer to send humanitarian aid to win the captives’ freedom as well as a demand by captors for Romania to try to intervene to win the freedom of some Iraqi prisoners.

The president also criticized the three journalists for failing to follow security guidelines during their stay in Iraq.

The kidnapping of Prima TV reporter Marie Jeanne Ion, cameraman Sorin Miscoci and daily Romania Libera reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian shocked the Romanian public. They were freed on May 22 after 55 days in captivity.

The president said authorities believe the three were kidnapped initially by a group put together by the Syrian-born businessman Omar Hayssam and his partner Mohammed Monaf, an Iraqi-American guide who organized the journalists’ trip and translated for them. Though Monaf is suspected of orchestrating the kidnapping, the former hostages have said he was held with them the entire time.

Romanian prosecutors have said the two men plotted the kidnapping while in Romania and the motivation for the ruse was that Hayssam, one of Romania’s wealthiest businessman, was under investigation for financial wrongdoing and banned from leaving Romania. He apparently hoped that ``saving″ the journalists would help him get clemency, they said.

Monaf allegedly carried out the kidnapping with the help of some friends, but lost control of the situation after a few days when a well organized Iraqi insurgent group intervened and took over the hostages, Basescu said.

Basescu recounted critical moments during the tense negotiations with the kidnappers. At one point authorities did not know whether the journalists had been executed.

``On April 21, the kidnappers’ negotiator said he would provide us with a Web site to watch the hostages being decapitated,″ he said.

Two days later, however, a previously unknown group calling itself Maadh Bin Jabal claimed responsibility for the kidnapping in a videotape aired on Al-Jazeera television. The video showed the hostages were still alive. But the kidnappers issued a public ultimatum for Romania to withdraw its 800 troops from Iraq within days.

Basescu said Romania refused to pull the troops out and did not pay a ransom.

``I confess that the decision was extremely difficult, because I knew that nothing justifies the loss of lives,″ said Basescu.

Basescu, who has previously warned that full disclosure may not come for 50 years, said the kidnappers also proposed exchanging the journalists for 20 Romanian soldiers serving in Iraq, or for Romanian help to try to obtain the release of some imprisoned Iraqis.

He said Romania offered instead to send humanitarian aid to Iraq, but did not say whether the kidnappers accepted that offer.

The three journalists held a news conference last week, saying they spent most of the time blindfolded and crowded in a small cellar.

The kidnappers later said they freed the hostages after an appeal by Romania’s Muslims and a prominent Saudi preacher.

Romanian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants on terrorism charges related to the kidnapping for Hayssam and Monaf, who is currently in U.S. custody in Iraq. Basescu said Romania has asked the United States to send Monaf to Romania to face charges, but that no agreement has been reached.

Hayssam is being detained in Bucharest on charges of economic crimes and terrorism.

Update hourly