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German Woman Held Hostage in Iraq Set Free; Sharon Rushed to Hospital

Aired December 18, 2005 - 13:24   ET


GERRI WILLIS, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Gerri Willis at the CNN Center in Atlanta. "ON THE STORY" continues in just a moment. But first, we have two developing stories. One of them in Israel, concerning Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; the other concerns a German hostage in Iraq.
Starting with Ariel Sharon. CNN has confirmed that a source in his office has told CNN that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was taken Sunday to a hospital in Jerusalem. He was in his office around 8:00 p.m. Sunday, saying he was not feeling well, and taken to a hospital there. The Israeli leader is 77 years old.

We have no more details at this time, other than the fact that he said he was not feeling well. He was in his office. And we're awaiting details from a beeper from Guy Raz in Jerusalem, who will be with us in just a second.

Chris Burns is with us now by telephone. Chris, what are you hearing?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Gerri. Susan Osthoff was kidnapped some three weeks ago, an archaeologist from Bavaria, the first German to be kidnapped in the Iraqi conflict. She was held by kidnappers, who were demanding that Germany cut its ties with Iraq. And Germany apparently had refused to do so, but she was still released sometime possibly today. Officials are now announcing this now, that she is in the German embassy in Baghdad.

Her brother also said by phone to German television, Robert Osthoff, that my sister is free, we are happy.

The driver, though, the Iraqi driver who was kidnaped along with her remains in the kidnappers' hands. Both were seen blindfolded on a videotape that was released by the kidnappers sometime ago. The kidnappers were demanding those cut with Iraqi officials. It is not clear what German officials might have done to try to secure her release. They did argue that she was a convert to Islam, that she'd lived in Iraq for 10 years, and that Germany was not involved in the Iraqi conflict, so she should not be targeted, Gerri.

WILLIS: And as we await details, more details here, she has been -- she was in captivity for about a month. Taken, abducted November 25th. Is that correct?

BURNS: Yes, that's correct. More than three and a half weeks. We had not heard much about her. We do know now that -- from the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who just had a quick news conference, had said that she is in good condition. That apparently she was not mistreated, as far as they can tell. She is in the German embassy at this point. Not clear when she will come back home.

WILLIS: Now, you said she was abducted with someone else. Do we know the status of that gentleman at all?

BURNS: All we know is that that's her Iraqi driver, that they were both, of course, kidnapped in northwest Iraq in the Nineveh region on November 25th. No exact word on the condition of the driver, but that he is still, according to the German officials, still in the kidnappers' hands.

WILLIS: And as we await, obviously, here more details, she had been a convert, you said, to Islam. Is that correct?

BURNS: Yes. That's correct. She lived in Iraq for the past 10 years. She'd worked as an archaeologist, and also in various aid projects. The Germans have been involved in restoring a number of projects, a number of ruins in Iraq for the -- in the past few years, and they do plan on doing so in the future. But perhaps this kidnapping might change things a bit as far as these archaeological projects, Gerri.

WILLIS: And that's not all, obviously. She has been freed, and, of course, you know, we have seen a number of hostages in Iraq. This is a happy ending, but it doesn't always happen this way, right, Chris?

BURNS: No, that's correct. And there had been the argument -- there was a woman who was the care worker from Britain who was kidnapped and was married to an Iraqi and was very well planted in Iraq. But that was not enough of an argument. She was killed. So there are -- and there's been a spade of kidnappings recently, and the fates of those people we don't quite know exactly yet.

But this is definitely a concern that the kidnappings have increased recently. Germany had been perhaps, you know, not militarily involved in Iraq, but that she was targeted, could have had to do with the fact that Germany is helping to train Iraqi security forces. Not inside Iraq, but outside of the country -- Gerri.

WILLIS: So, what do we know about the terms and conditions of her release?

BURNS: That's not clear at all at this point. We don't even know exactly what role the German government played, if at all. They were trying to -- they said they were trying to contact the hostages. They may have done so through a third party.

But there was a campaign by Susan Osthoff's family. Her sister was very much active last week here in Berlin with press conferences, which perhaps might have actually reached the kidnappers, where there was also a candlelight vigil before Brandenburg Gate on Friday night. So perhaps that might have had some kind of an effect in securing -- also, a chancellor -- former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, along with current Chancellor Angela Merkel had made the argument that this woman should not be targeted by the kidnappers, Gerri.

WILLIS: Chris Burns, thank you for that report.

We have another breaking news story. We're going to John Vause in Israel for details on Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. He has been taken to a hospital in Jerusalem. John, what do you have?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Gerri, at this stage, we don't know a great deal of information about the condition of the Israeli prime minister. What we do know is that a short time ago, Ariel Sharon was returning from his office, from his work here, he was on his way home to his ranch in the Nagev (ph), when he fell ill. He was taken to the Hadassah hospital, the main hospital here in Jerusalem. He was wheeled in. He was not taken in on his own accord.

We now understand that he is conscious, but he's not really sure of where he is, he's not entirely lucid at this stage. The exact condition which he's in right now still remains unclear.

But he was rushed to the hospital. He was not feeling well. He was not conscious. He was taken there. Not of his own volition, and he was taken on a stretch into the Hadassah hospital.

It is Sunday. It is beginning of the working week, so Ariel Sharon as prime minister of this country was at a working day when -- he was on his way home, completing that day of work, when the aides around him noticed that he was not obviously not well.

Something had happened. Something had gone wrong with his health. He is an elderly man. He is 78 years old. He is under a great deal of stress at the moment. He's recently left his Likud Party to establish his own political party called Kadima. There has been a great deal of pressure on Ariel Sharon, with the political infighting within the Likud Party.

So he was taken to the hospital. But as of a short time ago, we are told that he is now conscious but not entirely aware of the circumstances in which he finds him right now, Gerri.

WILLIS: John, do we have any idea of whether he's been having physical ailments or problems in the recent weeks?

VAUSE: The thing about Ariel Sharon, he may be 78, he may be incredibly overweight, he may be an old man, but by all accounts, he is an incredibly strong man. They call him the Bulldozer. He is from all appearances an incredibly healthy, strong man. He leads a fairly active life. There has never been any history of ill health in the past. Nothing like this. No indication that he has been suffering ill health in recent days or recent weeks. This is by all accounts a huge surprise, Gerri.

WILLIS: John, do you have any idea which hospital he was taken to in Jerusalem? VAUSE: He's taken here to Hadassah hospital, which is the main hospital here in Jerusalem. It's a very famous hospital, a very well equipped hospital. One of the best in the country, in fact, if not the best in the country.

Apparently, he was not far away from Hadassah -- Israel is a very small country -- as we say, he was on his way home from his office here in Jerusalem. So the Hadassah hospital would have only been a short ride away. When he was taken there, he was unconscious. The Hadassah hospital, as I said, is indeed one of the best hospitals if not the best hospital in Israel -- Gerri.

WILLIS: John, do you have any idea of a timeline for what's been going on this afternoon? The reports we saw, he was taken to the hospital at 8:00 p.m. Did the trouble start before that? Do you have any idea of the timing of what's been going on?

VAUSE: At this stage, those details are still very unclear. Precisely what happened, when it happened, what went wrong, what happened with his health, when he lost consciousness, when he was taken to the hospital. Still very much up in the air, this timeline, we're not too clear of. All we know is that he was finishing up from the day. He does work long hours. He is the prime minister of this country. He does have a great deal of stamina for the job. He does usually work incredibly late hours.

So he was at the office. He was heading home. And then he became ill, and then the aides took him to the hospital. That's as far as we know at this stage, Gerri.

WILLIS: You know, John, you mentioned that he has a lot of stamina, very healthy in the past, but it's been obvious watching him and pictures like we're seeing right now that in some cases, he's had difficulty getting around and maneuvering. Have you noticed that, as well?

VAUSE: Well, look, he is a very large man. He is obviously overweight. And that obviously presents a great deal of health problems in and of itself. But this man is considered a bull, a very, very strong man. He has the nickname of the Bulldozer. He is strong, not just physically, but emotionally. He is an incredibly determined man in all assets of his life -- in all aspects of his life. Not just physically, but has a great deal of determination in his political life, as well.

So as I said, this is a surprise for many people here in this country that Ariel Sharon, while he is 78 years old, he was widely considered to be in very, very good health. So this is certainly a surprising turn of events, Gerri.

WILLIS: John Vause, thank you so much for that report.

We'll continuing following both of these stories and break in with more news as we have it.


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