Military operation frees 2 Canadian hostages in Iraq

Two Canadian hostages held in Iraq for nearly four months have been freed by multinational forces in a military operation.

Two Canadian hostages held in Iraq for nearly four months were freed Thursday morning in a carefully planned British-led military operation involving Canadian, American and Iraqi forces.

Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, were freed along with Briton Norman Kember, 74. All three were members of the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), an international peace activist group.

They were abducted in November in Baghdad with American Tom Fox, who was later killed. His body was found March 10 with gunshot wounds in his head and chest.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Loney and Sooden required hospital treatment but he provided no details. Kember was reportedly in "reasonable" condition.

All three were initially taken to the U.S.-controlled military Green Zone in Baghdad and have since been moved to the British Embassy. They are not expected to speak publicly today, but Kember did release a brief statement saying: "It's great to be free."

RCMP, Canadian military involved?

Straw said the military operation that led to the release of the hostages occurred after "weeks and weeks" of careful preparation and involved military and civilian personnel, including the RCMP.

"The operation included representatives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, other agencies from Canada – and they did a terrific job – as well as the Americans and British staff and those from Iraq," said Straw.

The raid took place at 8 a.m. local time in a rural area near the town of Mishahda, about 30 kilometres north of Baghdad. It was based on information from a man who was captured Wednesday night.

"It was three hours between when we got the information and when we released the hostages," said Maj.-Gen Rick Lynch.

Lynch said no kidnappers were at the house and no shots were fired when the multinational forces entered to release the hostages, who were tied up. He called the abductors a "kidnapping cell that has been robust over the past several months."

Canadian military personnel were involved in the operation, according to Pentagon sources, but it's not clear how many took part or what their role was. There have been reports that members of Canada's top secret commando unit, Joint Task Force 2, have been working in Iraq.

Loney family elated

Loney's brother Ed Loney said he is relieved this nightmare has come to an end, adding the whole family has huge smiles on their faces and are making plans to welcome James home whenever he reaches Canada.

"Elated is an understatement," Loney told CBC News from Vancouver.

Sooden's brother-in-law spoke from New Zealand, where Sooden was based before being sent to Iraq. The family is "a little bit numb," said Mark Brewer.

"Actually, we're jumping up and down," he laughed.

The co-director of the Christian Peacemaker Teams said he couldn't think of a better reason to get a phone call in the middle of the night.

"Our hearts are filled with joy this morning," said Doug Pritchard during a morning news conference in Toronto. "Our gladness is bittersweet that Tom is not alive to join his colleagues in this celebration."

Members of the CPT in Baghdad were to visit the three hostages at the embassy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke briefly with the two Canadians, telling them the country is happy they are free.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said he was "delighted" by the news and congratulated everyone involved in the rescue.

A group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigades initially claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking.

Their abduction drew criticism from high-profile Muslim groups, including leading Sunni clerics in Iraq and a top Palestinian cleric. The Muslim Association of Britain placed ads in Iraqi newspapers appealing for their release.

More than 20 Americans are missing and believed kidnapped in Iraq, including American reporter Jill Carroll. She was kidnapped in early January in the Iraqi capital and has since appeared in three video clips on Arab television.