Mountain town mourns hostage Kayla


Published: Wednesday 11th February 2015 by The News Editor

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Members of the small Arizona town where Kayla Mueller grew up gathered in grief after learning that the aid worker who travelled the world to help others had died in the hands of Islamic State (IS) militants.

A memorial of flowers and handwritten notes took shape on the court plaza in Prescott, near a sign calling on people to pray for Ms Mueller, 26.

In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged to bring her captors to justice “no matter how long it takes”.

Ms Muller’s 18-month captivity had largely been kept secret in an effort to save her, but IS claimed on Friday that she had died in a Jordanian air strike targeting the terrorists.

The Pentagon said it was not known how or when she died, but it was certain it was not in the Jordanian attack.

“What a fine, fine woman and a tribute to Prescott,” said resident Tina Nemeth. “It’s just so sad, it really is, and everyone feels exactly the same. It’s a shock it hit Prescott. We’re not that big of a town.”

The former territorial capital of Arizona has only recently begun to recover from a devastating 2013 wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 members of an elite firefighting squad. Stickers featuring the fire crew’s logo and bearing the number 19 are still fixed to vehicles in the town.

The mountain town of 40,000 people resembles a relic of the Old West in many ways, with colourful saloons and a dirt road leading to where Ms Mueller’s family lives. Its picturesque court lawn is recognisable to outsiders who still recall it as the site of the dramatic martial-arts fight scene in the 1971 film Billy Jack.

That lawn was crammed with members of the media gathered to hear an emotional, often tearful tribute from Ms Mueller’s family and friends.

“All these stories about Kayla, she sounds so extraordinary,” said the Rev Kathleen Day, who heads the United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, where Ms Mueller attended college.

“What was so extraordinary about Kayla was she did ordinary things to extraordinary measures. She gave people food. She gave people water.”

She even befriended her captors, the minister added, at one point trying to teach them origami, and wrote passionately about conditions in war-torn Syria, where she had gone to help refugees.

“Every human being should act. They should stop this violence,” Ms Day said, quoting one of Ms Mueller’s blog posts.

Ms Mueller’s aunt Lori Lyon said her niece accomplished more in her 26 years than most people did in a lifetime, adding that her death had “touched the heart of the world”.

In Jordan, government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani offered his country’s condolences.

The White House said Mr Obama had spoken to Ms Mueller’s parents and offered his prayers. The president said she “epitomised all that is good in our world”.

Arizona senator John McCain hailed Ms Mueller’s humanitarian work in a speech from the US Senate floor.

“After graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 2009, Kayla committed her life to helping people in need around the world – first in India, then Israel and the Palestinian territories and back home in Prescott, where she volunteered at an HIV/Aids clinic and a women’s shelter,” he said.

As a high school student in Prescott, Mr McCain noted, Ms Mueller was recognised as a leader and received the President’s Award for Academic Excellence, as well as other honours.

Ms Mueller is the fourth American to die while being held by IS militants. Three others, journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig, were beheaded by the group.

Journalist Austin Tice disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria’s civil war. It is not clear what entity is holding him, but it is not believed to be IS or the Syrian government, his family has said.

Ms Mueller was taken hostage in August 2013 while leaving a hospital in Syria.

In each case, their captors demanded huge ransoms, which the United States has refused to pay, saying doing so would only encourage more kidnappings. Mr Obama defended that policy yesterday in an interview with BuzzFeed News, although he said explaining it to victims’ families was “as tough as anything I do”.

He also said a military operation last summer to recover Ms Mueller and others failed when rescuers arrived only “a day or two” after the group had been moved.

IS said last week that Ms Mueller was killed in a recent air strike Jordan launched as retaliation for the group’s gruesome killing of one of its pilots, who was burned to death.

Jordan denied that and yesterday Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, said there was “no doubt” IS killed Ms Mueller. He said officials had not learned yet how she died.

Her parents released a letter that their daughter had written to them while in captivity. In the undated letter, she said she was “in a safe location, completely unharmed”.

“I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able and I have a lot of fight left inside of me,” she wrote. “I am not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes.”

Published: Wednesday 11th February 2015 by The News Editor

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