A militant group denied on Sunday that it killed U.S. Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, injecting hope into his family's tense wait for news. The fate of the Lebanese-born Marine remains unknown, though Lebanon's Foreign Ministry says he is believed dead.
The denial from the Ansar al-Sunna Army came a day after a statement in the group's name announced that Hassoun had been beheaded. The Ansar al-Sunna said Sunday they didn't issue the statement, leaving it unclear if the 24-year-old was killed by another group or was still alive.
"The denial gave us a big relief," Hassoun's brother, Sami, told The Associated Press by telephone from the northern city of Tripoli, where some of Hassoun's relatives live.
But with conflicting reports and no hard evidence, the family remained afraid for Wassef's life and was still reeling from the possibility he had been beheaded.
"We are hoping that good news will come later tonight that Wassef is alive, God willing," Sami Hassoun said. He renewed his appeal to the kidnappers to release his brother.
The report that Wassef Hassoun had been killed came Saturday in a message posted on Islamic radical Web sites, signed by the Ansar al-Sunna Army in Qaim, a hotbed of guerrilla activity on Iraq's border with Syria. That name was different from the one given in the statement that originally announced Hassoun's abduction a week ago.
The Lebanese Foreign Ministry announced Sunday that it had independent information from Baghdad that he had been killed.
But after strongly condemning the death Sunday, Foreign Minister Jean Obeid later said news of the death "was not official."
Obeid said the Lebanese charge d'affaires in Baghdad was "in contact with some forces that have indirect links to the (kidnappers), and these forces say they lost hope in all attempts (to win his release) and by last night the group was about to behead him or had already beheaded him."
The U.S. military in Baghdad said it was checking into the claim of Hassoun's death but had no confirmation.
In its statement Sunday on its official Web site, the Ansar al-Sunna Army — which has taken responsibility for suicide bombings and other attacks in the past — said it had nothing to do with the claim of Hassoun's slaying the day before.
"In order to maintain our credibility in all issues we declare that this statement that was attributed to us has no basis of truth," it said.
It added that "any statement that is not issued through our site doesn't represent us."
In West Jordan, Utah — where Hassoun lived with his eldest brother Mohammed after moving to the United States in the early 1990s — relatives were in seclusion since the posting of the death report Saturday.
A telephone message left early Sunday morning at the home of Mohammed Hassoun was not immediately returned.
On Saturday, Shuaib-Ud Din, the imam at Khadeeja mosque in nearby West Valley City, met with Hassoun's family members for about 15 minutes at their home, where the yard had been decorated in recent days by about two dozen flags put up by Boy Scouts.
At a news conference at the mosque, the imam said the Hassouns were praying and awaiting official word of Wassef's fate. He cautioned the public against automatically believing reports out of the Middle East.
"Every family has a different way of dealing with the crisis. This family prefers less attention," Shuaib said. "They don't like the media outlets to be pounding on their door. They would like some privacy."
Hassoun, fluent in Arabic, French and English, was serving the Marines as a translator in his second stint in Iraq when he was captured.
The original claim of Hassoun's abduction was issued in the name of "Islamic Response," the security wing of the "National Islamic Resistance - 1920 Revolution Brigades," rather than the Ansar al-Sunna Army.
On June 27, the Arab television station Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing Hassoun blindfolded, along with a statement from militants threatening to kill him unless the United States releases all Iraqis in "occupation jails."
Since Hassoun's capture, his father, Ali Hassoun, who lives in Tripoli, repeatedly has pleaded for his son's release, saying he was not involved in the fight against Iraqi resistance groups. He and his other sons had contacted politicians and Muslim clerics in Lebanon and Islamist groups in Iraq in hopes of securing the Marine's release.
Family members said Wassef was born in Lebanon, educated at American schools there and then joined the Marines after moving to the Salt Lake City, Utah, area.
Arabs working with the Americans in Iraq also have been targets of Iraqi insurgents, and at times the motives for kidnappings have not been clear.
Militants have kidnapped at least five Lebanese hostages in Iraq in recent months — all for financial reasons. Four of those kidnapped were later released but one, Hussein Alyan, was shot dead and his body dumped beside a road.