A Ransom Demand for the Missing U.S. Soldier

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A kidnapping ring has demanded a $250,000 ransom from the family of the U.S. soldier abducted in Iraq, a suspiciously low sum that his family worries could be a sign that he is no longer alive.

The Pentagon Thursday confirmed for the first time that Specialist Ahmed al-Taie, a reservist assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Team Baghdad, has been "unaccounted for" since Oct. 23 at 4:30 p.m.; he is currently listed as "duty status whereabouts unknown." Family members of the 41-year-old Iraqi-American from Ann Arbor, Mich., say he was nabbed by a gang claiming to be from the Mahdi Army while he was on an unauthorized trip outside the fortified Green Zone to visit his wife in Baghdad.

The ransom demand for al-Taie was relayed earlier this week to al-Taie's uncle Entifad Qanbar, a former spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress and recently an official in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Qanbar described to TIME the complicated negotiations he has been engaged in on behalf of the family and in close coordination with the U.S.-led Hostage Working Group, a task force in the U.S. embassy in Baghdad made up of specialists from multiple U.S. agencies and the military. Requests made Thursday evening to the U.S. military and State Department for comment on the ransom demand were not returned.

Earlier this week, Qanbar made contact with an intermediary trusted by the kidnappers. In a secret location in Baghdad, the mediator met with members of the group who showed him a grainy video on a cell phone screen of a man they claimed was al-Taie, beaten up and bloody. Then the gang demanded $250,000 from the soldier's family to secure his release. Something didn't seem right, says Qanbar. "The number is too low for a U.S. soldier," he told TIME. It made him wonder if his nephew was even alive.

Qanbar said he told the kidnappers he wouldn't talk about a price until he had seen for himself some proof that al-Taie was still breathing. He suggested they have his nephew describe the inside of his home in Ann Arbor or that the kidnappers photograph the soldier holding a current newspaper. He said he wanted to see proof by Saturday, Nov. 4, at noon. "I decided there had to be a deadline for these tedious negotiations," says Qanbar. "You don't want to play by the rules of the kidnappers all the time."

Over the past 10 days more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 1,000 Iraqi security forces have been searching neighborhoods east of the Tigris River in Baghdad for al-Taie. U.S. troops cordoned off the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in the search before Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told commanders he wanted the roadblocks taken down Tuesday. The top American military spokesman in Iraq Major General William Caldwell said Thursday that one U.S. soldier had been killed during the search and eight wounded. Caldwell added that the U.S. has "credible intelligence" on who is behind the kidnapping and confirmed that discussions with the group had begun. "There is ongoing dialogue that is being done at different levels at this time," said Caldwell.