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Abducted contractors appear in videotape

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Four American security contractors and an Austrian co-worker who were kidnapped in southern Iraq six weeks ago appear to be in good physical condition in a videotape that was shot two weeks after they were taken captive.

The footage, which hasn't been made public, is the first proof that all five men survived their abduction Nov. 16 in an ambush in the town of Safwan. The clip was shown to McClatchy Newspapers in Baghdad on Tuesday night on condition that the provider's name and other identifying details be withheld for security reasons.

The provider said the video was shot in response to a demand for proof that the men were alive before negotiations for their release could begin. The provider was confident that the men are still living and remain in the hands of a little-known Shiite Muslim militant group that calls itself the "Mujahedeen of Jerusalem Company."

Representatives of the U.S. military, the American Embassy and the men's employer, the Kuwait-based Crescent Security Group, said they hadn't known of the video and called it the first significant development since the kidnapping.

"The families were relieved and glad to hear some news," said a Crescent Security representative who also asked to withhold his name because of security concerns. "I feel good there's a tape out there, but I'm more happy that it's a means to communicate with the kidnappers."

In the video, which runs for one and a half minutes, each of the men repeats the same presumably scripted demand: that American forces withdraw from Iraq. None of the captors appears in the video, and no ransom demand, explicit threat or deadline is given. Three of the hostages are shown together, while the other two appear in separate shots that may have been taken elsewhere.

The video begins with a shot of the three with their hands cuffed in front of them, standing in a row against a backdrop of gold-colored drapes. The men identify themselves as John Young, 44, of Kansas City, Mo., Jonathan Cote, 23, of Gainesville, Fla., and Bert Nussbaumer, 25, of Vienna, Austria.

All three wear identical white short-sleeved undershirts, gray pajama-like pants and socks. The video shows all three men, then zooms in on each hostage's face as he speaks.

Young, with a mustache and calm demeanor, blinks rapidly several times before beginning. He looks directly into the camera and gives his name, age and hometown.

"I work in private security in Iraq," Young says. "I am asking the people of my country to please help me and my friends out of Iraq and to pressure the government to remove troops from Iraq."

Next is Cote (pronounced "Ko-TAY"), who's the only hostage with visible signs of injury. He has slight bruising and swelling around his nose and red splotches on his face. He speaks calmly.

"I work for a private security company," Cote says. "I'm asking the American people to put pressure on the government to leave Iraq to help me and my friends get out of here."

The last of the trio is the dark-haired Nussbaumer, who speaks with a thick accent and describes himself as an "Austrian citizen." His voice is the least clear, but he appears to say, "I want you to get me and my friends out of Iraq."

The video then cuts to a shot of a fourth hostage, who identifies himself as "Josh Munz, from California, USA." He's clean-shaven and doesn't appear to be handcuffed. He also is dressed in nondescript pajama-style clothing and speaks before a white backdrop—not the same golden curtains as the previous scene.

"I was in the United States Marine Corps, in Haditha and Fallujah," Munz says, referring to two predominantly Sunni Muslim towns where fighting has been fierce.

The clip then cuts to a similar white backdrop, but of a different material. The last man appears to be sitting down, though his legs aren't visible. His hands aren't cuffed.

The hostage identifies himself only as "Paul," though it's clear he's Paul Reuben, a former Minnesota police officer whose family had previously released his name and photo. His twin, Patrick Reuben, said in an e-mail that the brothers had turned 40 on Nov. 24, eight days after the kidnapping. Paul Reuben alludes to his birthday in the video.

"I'm 39 years old, or 40; I'm not quite sure of today's date," he says. "I'm from Buffalo, Minnesota. I'm married. I have twin daughters—they're 16—and I have a stepson that's 16."

Reuben is dressed differently from the other hostages, wearing a dark-blue tracksuit with orange stripes along the shoulders. He grins nervously when he flubs a line at the end of his recorded statement.

"I'm asking America to release us by getting our troops out of America," he says.

Then Reuben turns his gaze from the camera, apparently in response to someone who points out the error. He gives a little laugh and says, "I'm sorry, out of Iraq."

He then gestures off-camera, asking in a clearly enunciated voice, "Do over? No good."

The camera zooms in for a close-up of Reuben's face and the video ends with a tight shot of his toothy smile.

The digital date on the recording is 14-4-2006, indicating that the captors hadn't set the timer properly or had changed it. There's no way to tell for sure when the video was filmed. The hostages' hair seems unkempt, but they generally appear in good health and with access to shaving supplies.

The provider of the video said he thought that the group was holding the hostages in different locations, because of the change in backgrounds. Other than the colors of the backdrops, there are no distinguishing characteristics of the location.

The provider allowed McClatchy Newspapers to record the audio but didn't permit copying of the video. It wasn't clear whether the provider would be involved in future negotiations for release of the hostages.

The audio recording of the tape, available online at www.mcclatchydc.com, was made available to Crescent Security on Wednesday so that relatives wouldn't be caught by surprise. The Crescent representative said family members were advised not to comment until investigators had reviewed the matter.

The men were part of a Crescent Security convoy that had just crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq on an assignment for the Italian military when gunmen in several vehicles swarmed the group and made off with 14 hostages and 19 of the convoy's 43 heavy trucks.

Two security contractors—a Briton and a Chilean—were left behind unharmed, the Crescent spokesman said. Nine Asian truck drivers who were among those seized also were released, leaving just the four Americans and the Austrian.

A company statement says the convoy was ambushed by "suspected militia dressed in Iraqi Police uniforms."

Two main Shiite militias—the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization—are active in the south, but neither has claimed responsibility. Militia leaders frequently blame splinter groups for unauthorized abductions and attacks.

Shortly after the kidnappings, an Iranian satellite TV channel aired a video from an obscure group that calls itself the "Mujahedeen of Jerusalem Company."

A masked man said the group had carried out the ambush and demanded the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in return for the prisoners' release. Because the tape didn't show the contractors or any other proof that the group was holding them, the claim didn't cause much of a stir among U.S. investigators.

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Audio of the contractors is at

http://www.realcities.com/multimedia/nationalchannel/archive/mcw/audio/hostage(underline)audio/index.htm

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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