British and US special forces freed three Western peace workers - including the 74-year-old Briton Norman Kember - without firing a shot today, ending a four-month ordeal in which an American hostage was murdered.
The three Christian activists were freed in an SAS-led dawn raid on a house in western Baghdad, but it appears that their captors had already fled.
Mr Kember, a retired professor, is in good health and was said to have told staff at the British Embassy in Baghdad: "It's great to be free. I'm looking forward to getting back to the UK."
Norman Kember's harrowed appearance on this January video was a low point for his family and supporters (Al Jazeera/AP)
A life-long peace campaigner, Mr Kember was kidnapped with two Canadians, James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and Tom Fox, a 54-year-old American, in Baghdad on November 26. All four were volunteers with the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams.
While friends and family held vigils, furious diplomatic attempts to win their freedom came to nothing and occasional videos released by their captors were followed by ominous silences. On March 9, shortly after the release of a videotape showing his three colleagues, Mr Fox's battered body was found handcuffed on a rubbish dump in west Baghdad on March 9, wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a plastic bag.
British officials said the rescue operation came after weeks of planning, but a US military spokesman, Major-General Rick Lynch, said the information that allowed the assault to go ahead came from a man detained by American forces late last night. A few hours later the raid was launched and all three hostages were found tied up in the same room of the house.
"They were bound, they were together. There were no kidnappers in the areas," he told a press conference in Baghdad. "The key point is that it was intelligence-led and it was information gathered from a detainee."
All three hostages were said to be in good health, although British officials suggested that Mr Kember - the eldest by more than 30 years - had survived the ordeal best. The hostages were flown to Baghdad's Green Zone for medical checks and debriefing by the security services.
Reports of their release were confirmed by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who delivered a statement in Downing Street this morning.
"The three hostages, Norman Kember, a British hostage, (and) two Canadian hostages, have been released as a result of a multi-national force operation which took place earlier today. British forces were involved in this operation," Mr Straw said.
"It follows weeks and weeks of very careful work by our military personnel in Iraq and many civilians as well. I am delighted that now we have a happy ending to this terrible ordeal for Norman Kember, for his family, and for the Canadian hostages and their families as well."
The Foreign Secretary said that he had already spoken to Mr Kember's wife, Pat. "It goes without saying that she is absolutely delighted, elated, at this news," he added.
In a later statement to reporters, he added: "Mercifully, no shots were fired when their release was being effected."
In Toronto, Doug Pritchard, co-director of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, which sends teams of Christians trained in techniques of non-violent action to conflicts around the world, welcomed the release - although he said that Mr Fox's murder meant that their colleagues' joy was "bitter-sweet".
The Iraqi Interior Minstry said that the three had been rescued from a house in the town of Mishahda, 20 miles north of Baghdad, but it appeared that the house was actually in Baghdad's western outskirts.
Mr Kember, a retired professor of medical physics, is a former secretary of the Baptist Peace Fellowship and a trustee of the Fellowship for Reconciliation, a Christian peace organisation.
He told Premier Christian Radio before he left that his visit to Iraq was a "gesture of solidarity". He said: "I hope to meet ordinary Iraqis of various backgrounds, Shias, Sunnis, Christians and just hear their stories, then come back and talk about it."
Asked by the station if going to Iraq was a brave action, he answered: "I donít know, Iíve done a lot of writing and talking about peacemaking. Iíve demonstrated, you name it Iíve been on it, but I feel thatís what Iíd call cheap peacemaking."
The abduction of the four Christian activists was claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself the Brigades of the Swords of Righteousness which threatened to kill them unless all Iraqi prisoners were released.
British Muslim groups lent their weight to attempts to negotiate the hostages' release, although it is unclear what contact, if any, was made with their kidnappers.
Mr Kember's wife also released a televised message appealing for his release via the al-Jazeera television network, and further appeals for mercy were made by Moazzam Begg, the former British detainee in Guantanamo Bay, and by Abu Qatada, a terror suspect held at Full Sutton jail near York.
The release comes two weeks after the broadcast of a video showing Professor Kember and his fellow captives. Security experts who analysed the 25-second clip said they were encouraged by the absence of terrorist paraphernalia such as guns, flags and orange jumpsuits, and by the lack of a new deadline. They thought that the three had escaped the clutches of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda terrorist leader thought to have personally executed Ken Bigley, a British engineer, and other Western hostages.
The veteran peace campaigner Bruce Kent, a friend of Mr Kember who has been involved in weekly vigils for his release since his capture, said "this is news beyond belief".
He told Sky News: "In this awful mess of Baghdad thank God there is one bright light anyway." Speaking about his friendís ordeal, he added: "It was absolute torture. And thinking of the unfortunate American Tom Fox who was murdered, they must have had the most terrible time."
Mr Straw said that Mr Kember was in "reasonable condition" despite his ordeal, but that his Canadian colleagues had been taken to hospital for treatment. Asked when Mr Kember, from Pinner, northwest London, would return to the UK, he replied: "That's a matter to be decided. What's really important is that Norman Kember and his two Canadian colleagues are safe."
Tony Blair was said to be "delighted" at the news. Downing Street said in a statement: "He is particularly pleased for those released and their families. He congratulates everyone involved in the operation to rescue the hostages."
The most high-profile Western hostage still missing in Iraq is Jill Carroll, a freelance journalist working for The Christian Science Monitor, who was kidnapped in Baghdad on January 7. She has appeared in three videotapes delivered by her kidnappers to Arab satellite television stations.
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.