(The Age) - Australia's defence minister yesterday denied a newspaper report that hostage Donald Wood's dramatic rescue from militants in Baghdad this month was stage-managed to promote the image of success against insurgents.
The Sunday Age newspaper reported that Australian negotiators had reached an agreement with Wood's captors for his release ten days before his rescue on June 15. But it said they scrapped it after deciding that paying a $100,000 dollar ransom would set a bad precedent.
Australian foreign affairs officials say the Iraqi troops were acting on intelligence about possible insurgent activity in the area of Baghdad where Wood was found, while the US military said he was found by chance during a routine search. The Sunday Age said it had learned that Wood's rescue was carefully planned and that Iraqi troops were used in the operation to disguise Australia's behind-the-scenes involvement.
The paper said Australia's top Muslim cleric, Sheikh Taj Aldin Al Hilali, played an instrumental role in the release, conferring almost daily with the head of the Australian emergency response team Nick Warner. It said the sheikh's communications 'were almost certainly bugged.' Hilali has previously said he had already negotiated Wood's release before the Iraqi military moved in. Wood was set to speak publicly about his ordeal in an interview with Australia's Channel Ten network yesterday, for which he will reportedly be paid $310,000.