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Diplomat's e-mails show slain American was in US custody

After release, he was abducted

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- A US diplomatic official in Iraq told the family of slain American Nicholas Berg in early April that Berg was being detained by the US military, according to e-mails provided by the family yesterday.

US government officials have said that Berg, who was found dead last weekend in Baghdad, was detained by Iraqi police March 24 and was never in the custody of American forces.

He is believed to have been kidnapped within days of his April 6 release by either Iraqi police or coalition forces and was later beheaded by militants who videotaped the slaying.

To back its assertions that Berg was in US custody, the family showed the Associated Press an April 1 e-mail from Beth A. Payne, the US consular officer in Iraq.

"I have confirmed that your son, Nick, is being detained by the US military in Mosul," the e-mail said. "He is safe. He was picked up approximately one week ago. We will try to obtain additional information regarding his detention and a contact person you can communicate with directly." In two e-mails later that day, Payne wrote that she was still trying to find a local contact for the family.

Berg's brother, David Berg, called on the government to come clean about its contacts with the slain American before he died. The family has blamed the government for keeping him in custody for too long while anti-American violence escalated in Iraq.

It is unclear when and how Berg was captured. Accounts of his detention in Mosul in late March are also conflicting. US officials insist he was arrested by Iraqi police for involvement in "suspicious activities." The Mosul police chief has denied that.

The FBI visited Berg three times before he was released April 6, according to a senior FBI official. The agents told him Iraq was too dangerous for unprotected American civilians. Berg wrote to his parents after his release that federal agents had questioned him about whether he had ever built a pipe bomb or had been in Iran.

Berg had caught the FBI's attention before. Berg's father said yesterday his son was investigated by the FBI more than a year ago over contact he had with a terrorism suspect while he was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

A senior law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Berg volunteered information about the 2002 investigation when he was detained in Iraq. The official said that an e-mail address traced to Berg had been used by an unidentified individual with purported connections to terrorism.

Also yesterday, John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in an Arkansas television interview that he has spoken with Michael Berg. "I know as a father how I would feel if it were one of my daughters or stepsons," Kerry said.

Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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