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Hostage's family buys TV time

John Howard
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

(CNN) -- The family of Australian hostage Douglas Wood has bought advertising on an Arabic-language news channel calling for his release by insurgents in Iraq, a family spokesman said Monday.

The ads began running last week on the satellite news network Al Arabiya. The spots show pictures of Wood, who was reported kidnapped in early May, as a hostage and with his friends and family.

Family spokesman Neil Smail confirmed that Wood's family was paying for the ads.

The ad says Wood, a 63-year-old engineer, is in weak health and needs immediate medical assistance.

It displays a Web site address and says "anyone with information on Douglas should call number 130."

Al Arabiya clearly labeled the spot a "paid ad" and ran it twice in one break Friday, with an ad in between from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

A Sydney-based Muslim cleric, Sheik Taj Din Al Hilaly, has been in Iraq recently attempting to negotiate Wood's release. He has been in touch with tribal leaders who in turn have contacts with the militants holding Wood.

According to a report Monday by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the sheik said Wood could not be released immediately because he needed to be taken to a safe release location.

A spokesman for the sheik, Keysar Trad, said the cleric told him "virtually all other issues" had been settled.

"We could have some positive news by the end of the week," Trad was quoted as saying by the ABC.

An extremist group calling itself the Shura Council of Mujahideen initially threatened to murder Wood within days if its demands for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq were not met.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said at the time that the Australian Government would not remove its troops from Iraq nor pay a ransom to the militants.

Under the government led by Prime Minister John Howard, Australia has been a strong supporter of the Bush administration and has contributed forces and equipment to the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Australian sent 2,000 troops, along with ships and aircraft, to take part in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later reduced the number to about 950 after the ousting of Saddam Hussein.

Howard's decision to take part in the war was not popular, but voters returned his center-right coalition to power in October last year and rejected an opposition candidate who had promised to withdraw if elected.

In February, Howard announced that about 450 additional Australian soldiers would be sent to the south of the country to help protect Japanese engineers based there and to assist in training Iraqi soldiers.

Those forces arrived last month. There have been no Australian forces killed so far in Iraq, though several have been injured.

Senior Editor for Arab Affairs Octavia Nasr contributed to this report

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