Armenian Hostage Freed in Iraq

NICOSIA (AFP)–A Cypriot-Lebanese man taken hostage by gunmen in Iraq five months ago and threatened with death has been released–officials and family members said on Sunday.

The Cypriot foreign ministry said it had been informed by the family of Garo Jikerjian–who is of Armenian origin and holds both Lebanese and Cypriot citizenship–that he was freed on December 31.

"This was the best Christmas present I could ever expect; it’s like no other," said Jikerjian’s aunt–Rita Metzadourian–who added that she had spoken to him briefly and that "he said he was okay."

The Cypriot foreign ministry said Jikerjian was expected to return to Cyprus within the next few days.

"The foreign ministry expresses its satisfaction at the happy conclusion of the five-month captivity of the Cypriot national," it said in a statement.

Jikerjian was kidnapped by gunmen in August in Baghdad’s upscale Mansur district–where he was working for a Lebanese-owned but Cyprus-based importer of food and liquor for US-led coalition forces and the Iraqi army.

A group calling itself The Group for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice posted a video on the Internet on September 11 showing a man who identified himself as "Garo" sitting on the floor with his hands and feet bound and a hooded gunman pointing an automatic weapon at his head.

They threatened to kill the hostage unless his company left Iraq. Last month–his father issued an appeal for Jikerjian’s release in a video message broadcast on Arab television.

"I believe there was payment made. They wouldn’t have released him otherwise–but I don’t know any of the details," Metzadourian said.

The kidnappers had initially demanded 20,000 dollars for Jikerjian’s release–but after his employer paid the ransom the amount jumped to two million dollars–Metzadourian said in September.

Dozens of foreigners have been kidnapped by anti-American insurgents in Iraq and some have been executed by their captors. Around 40 foreigners remain missing or reported kidnapped since a spate of abductions first blighted Iraq in April 2004.

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