| Private Keith Maupin as seen on al Jazeera TV. (AP)
Baghdad, April 17: An American soldier who has been missing for a week since his fuel convoy was attacked west of Baghdad was seen on a videotape yesterday being held captive by six armed and masked men.
The family of the soldier, Private First Class Keith Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, confirmed his identity.
A voice speaking in Arabic on the tape, first shown on the Arab news network al Jazeera, said Private Maupin was being held to trade for Iraqi prisoners of the Americans.
Private Maupin, who identified himself on the tape, was dressed in fatigues and a floppy desert hat and shown looking down, chewing on his lip nervously. The Pentagon said he was one of two soldiers missing after an attack on April 9. Seven civilian contractors are also missing from that attack.
“I came to Iraq to liberate it,” Private Maupin said, according to an Arabic translation broadcast by al Jazeera, in a soft and uncertain voice. “But I didn’t want to come here because I wanted to be with my son.” He said he was married and had a 10-month-old son.
The tape was released on a complex day in the struggle to end two serious standoffs between Iraqi insurgents and the US military, as a rebel Shia cleric again defied a crucial American demand and as American officials said their patience with Sunni insurgents was running out.
In Washington, President Bush met Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, and both asserted that they would stand firm in their commitment to pursue their goals in Iraq, despite the difficulties of recent weeks. Blair said there would be a stepped-up effort for recruiting and training Iraqi police and security forces, and a crucial role for the UN as well.
Over the last two weeks, Iraqi insurgents have abducted some 40 foreigners — about half of whom have been released unharmed, including at least four yesterday. The abductions are part of a new strategy that has raised the dangers here and caused further divisions between the US and its allies over Iraq.
Yesterday, a group of 118 workers from Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics were evacuated from Iraq.
Today, kidnappers freed two Japanese hostages in Baghdad.
Guns fell silent in Falluja, west of Baghdad, where air strikes and clashes have punctuated a shaky truce, but a US spokesman said time was running out for talks aimed at ending fighting between rebels and US Marines. The two Japanese, Jumpei Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe, were unshaven and looked tired but in good health as they were handed over to Japanese diplomats at Baghdad’s Um al-Qura mosque.
In mostly Sunni Falluja, a leading American official, Richard Jones, joined week-old peace talks with city leaders, senior US spokesman Dan Senor told a news conference.
“We are hopeful about their intentions,” he said. “Our overriding question is can they deliver and, if so, can they do so expeditiously' Time is running out.”
One resident in the city of 300,000 said: “For the first time in days, Falluja is completely calm.”
US Marines launched a crackdown in the city on April 5 after the gruesome killings of four American private security guards, ambushed in the town the previous week.
US officials want their killers brought to justice and the disarming of an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 fighters in Falluja, where they say foreign Islamist militants are also operating.
The two freed Japanese hostages said they had been well treated during their three days of captivity. “We had a good meal every day,” Yasuda said. “We were caught around Abu Ghraib (on the outskirts of Baghdad) and after that we were blindfolded and changed house every day.”
Three other Japanese were freed on Thursday, but several foreigners are still missing, including a US contractor, a Palestinian, a Dane, a Jordanian and three Italians. Captors have threatened to kill the Italians one by one unless Rome withdraws its troops from Iraq.
US officials said one soldier had died of his wounds after an attack by militiamen near Najaf yesterday. Two militiamen were also killed.
Shia clerics have worked hard to avert a bloody showdown in Najaf and its shrines, but a spokesman for one of the city’s four grand ayatollahs said the Shia religious establishment was not directly involved in talks. April has been Iraq’s bloodiest month since Saddam Hussein was ousted a year ago. The US military has lost at least 93 soldiers in combat so far since March 31 — more than the total killed in the three-week war that toppled Saddam.
The climate of insecurity prompted the US military to close highways One and Eight, north and south of Baghdad, indefinitely. It said guerrilla attacks had made them unsafe for civilian use.