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Zarqawi Group Purportedly Wants Hassan Freed

The insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq called Friday for the release of the kidnapped executive of the CARE charity, Margaret Hassan (search), and promised to free her if she fell into their hands.

In a message posted on the Internet, the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search) said it wanted the world to know "if (the kidnappers of Margaret Hassan) handed us this captive, we will release her immediately unless it is proven she was conspiring against Muslims."

The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it was signed "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and it appeared Friday on a Web site known for publishing messages from Islamic militant groups.

The statement appeared three days after a video was broadcast in which Hassan's kidnappers said Britain had 48 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq or they would transfer her to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, which until recently called itself Tawhid and Jihad, has claimed responsibility for beheading a number of Western hostages, such as the American businessman Nick Berg (search) and the British construction worker Kenneth Bigley. It also claimed to have carried out a series of major vehicle bombings, such the attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last year.

The director of CARE International (search) in Iraq, Hassan, 59, was kidnapped Oct. 19 as she drove to work in Baghdad. Patients at a hospital run by CARE staged a small demonstration calling for the release of Hassan, who has Irish, British and Iraqi citizenships.

Videos of Hassan in captivity have been released, but no group has claimed responsibility for her abduction.

More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003. More than 30 foreign hostages have been killed. Some kidnapping groups seek ransom, while others pursue political motives such as the withdrawal of foreign companies and troops from Iraq.