Four abducted employees of French Christian NGO released in Iraq


Four employees working with a French Christian charity who were kidnapped in Iraq in January have been released, France's presidency said on Thursday.

The release of the four men with SOS Chretiens d'Orient (Christians of the Middle East) comes just a day after France said it would withdraw its troops from Iraq due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The presidential Elysee Palace in Paris said that France had made "every effort to reach this outcome". "The president expresses his gratitude to the Iraqi authorities for their cooperation," the presidency said in a statement without adding details.

SOS Chretiens d'Orient said on Twitter it welcomed the release of its four employees - three French nationals and one Iraqi. The charity also said it "warmly thanked the French authorities for their work, as well as the Iraqi authorities".

Last week, SOS Chretiens d'Orient said that there had been no news of its four employees and they had received no ransom demand nor had any group claimed responsibility for their abduction.

Antoine Brochon, Julien Dittmar, Alexandre Goodarzy and Tariq Mattoka were kidnapped in Baghdad on 20 January, as the Iraqi capital was gripped by demonstrations.

The months of protests were initially against the government, but America's military presence in Iraq became a hot-button issue after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad on 3 January.

SOS Chretiens d'Orient has been working with persecuted Christians in Iraq since 2014 when Islamic State jihadists overran the province of Mosul, displacing tens of thousands of minority Christians and Yazidis. The organisation, which is fiercely critical of Islam, portraying it as a threat to Christianity in the Middle East, has drawn criticism in the past for sending young French volunteers to Syria and Iraq for months at a time.

France said on Wednesday it would withdraw its 200 military personnel working in Iraq, which are mostly trainers to local armed forces, blaming complications arising from the COVID-19 crisis.

Iraq's military halted all training in early March to minimise the risk of the illness spreading among its forces, including from the US-led coalition helping fight remnants of Islamic State.

The U.S., whose military represents the vast majority of foreign troops in Iraq, has announced the coalition will be temporarily reducing its forces.    (AFP)

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