Iraq Militants Behead S. Korean Hostage

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Islamic militants Tuesday beheaded a South Korean who pleaded in a heart-wrenching videotape that "I don't want to die" after his government refused to pull its troops from Iraq. He was the third foreign hostage decapitated in the Middle East in little over a month.

Hours later, the United States launched an airstrike in Fallujah on what the U.S. military said was a safehouse used by followers of the country's most-wanted terrorist: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian whose Monotheism and Jihad movement was believed behind the beheading of the hostage, Kim Sun-il.

Fallujah residents said the strike hit a parking lot. Three people were killed and nine wounded, said Dr. Loai Ali Zeidan at Fallujah Hospital. It was the second attack against the terror network in three days, the U.S. military said.

Elsewhere, two American soldiers were killed Tuesday and another was wounded in an attack on a convoy near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. The dean of the University of Mosul law school was murdered in another attack against the country's intellectual elite. Gunmen also killed two Iraqi women working as translators for British forces in Basra, Iraqi officials said.

The Arabic language satellite television channel broadcast a videotape of a terrified Kim kneeling, blindfolded and wearing an orange jumpsuit similar to those issued to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Kim's shoulders were heaving, his mouth open and moving as if he were gulping air and sobbing. Five hooded and armed men stood behind him, one with a big knife slipped in his belt.

One of the masked men read a statement addressed to the Korean people: "This is what your hands have committed. Your army has not come here for the sake of Iraqis, but for cursed America."

The video as broadcast did not show Kim being executed. Al-Jazeera said the tape contained pictures of Kim, 33, being slaughtered but the channel decided not to air it because it could be "highly distressing to our audience."

After news of Kim's death broke, South Korean television showed Kim's distraught family weeping and rocking back and forth with grief at their home in the southeastern port city of Busan.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, addressing the nation on television Wednesday, strongly condemned terrorism and rejected the kidnappers' claim that the 3,000 new troops his government is sending would hurt Iraqis.

"The South Korean plan to send troops to Iraq is not to engage in hostilities against Iraqis or other Arab people but to help reconstruction and restoration in Iraq," Roh said.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed Kim's death but did not say he was beheaded. However, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy operations chief, said the body of an Asian male was found west of Baghdad on Tuesday evening.

"It appears that the body had been thrown from a vehicle," Kimmitt said in a statement. "The man had been beheaded, and the head was recovered with the body."

American troops found Kim's body between Baghdad and Fallujah about 5:20 p.m. Iraq time, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said. The body was identified by a photograph sent by e-mail to the South Korean embassy.

Kim, who spoke Arabic, worked for Gana General Trading Co., a South Korean company supplying the U.S. military in Iraq. He was believed kidnapped several weeks ago.

In a video released by his captors Sunday, Kim begged his government to end its involvement in Iraq.

"Korean soldiers, please get out of here," he screamed in English. "I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I know that your life is important, but my life is important."

The kidnappers gave South Korea 24 hours to meet their demand that Korean forces stay out of Iraq or "we will send you the head of this Korean."

The grisly killing was reminiscent of the decapitation of American businessman Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded last month on a videotape posted on an al-Qaida-linked Web site by the same group that claimed responsibility for Kim's death.

In Saudi Arabia, American helicopter technician Paul M. Johnson Jr., 49, was beheaded by al-Qaida militants who had threatened to kill him if the kingdom did not release its al-Qaida prisoners. An al-Qaida group claiming responsibility posted an Internet message that showed photographs of Johnson's severed head.

Although Kim's kidnappers initially set a deadline of sundown Monday for Seoul to meet its demands, they postponed the execution as South Korean diplomats and intermediaries sought negotiations.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, in a dispatch from Baghdad, quoted an "informed source" as saying that negotiations collapsed over the South Korean government's refusal to drop its plan to send troops.

"As a condition for starting negotiations for Kim's release, the kidnappers demanded that South Korea announce that it would retract its troop dispatch plan," the source was quoted as saying. "This was a condition the South Korean government could not accept. As the talks bogged down, the kidnappers apparently resorted to an extreme measure."

After Kim's death was confirmed, South Korea convened its National Security Council before dawn to discuss the government's reaction, said Shin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. Later, the government reaffirmed plans to keep its 600 troops in Iraq and send 3,000 more by August.

But the government ordered all its nonessential South Korean civilians to leave Iraq as soon as possible.

President Bush condemned the beheading as "barbaric" and said he remained confident that South Korea would go ahead with plans to send the troops to Iraq. South Korea will be the third-largest troop contributor after the United States and Britain.

"The free world cannot be intimidated by the brutal actions of these barbaric people," the president said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said no cause could justify the "heartless" murder of the South Korean hostage.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, said they would hand legal custody of Saddam Hussein and an undetermined number of former regime figures to the interim government as soon as Iraqi courts issue warrants for their arrest and request the transfer.

However, the United States will retain physical custody of Saddam and the prisoners, while giving Iraqi prosecutors and defense lawyers access to them, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A car bomb exploded in a Baghdad residential neighborhood near the international airport Tuesday, killing three people, including a 3-year-old girl, and wounding six other Iraqis, said Maj. Phil Smith, a U.S. military spokesman.

The recent abductions and attacks appear aimed at undermining the interim Iraqi government set to take power June 30, when the U.S.-led occupation formally ends.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said that by week's end, all Iraqi government ministries would be under full Iraqi control.

The coalition official who briefed reporters about the prisoner custody issue said the Americans will keep Saddam and others under U.S. guard even after the June 30 handover because the Iraqi government does not yet have capacity to hold such prisoners, the official said.

U.S. troops captured Saddam in December near his hometown of Tikrit.