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ISIS Hostage, Kayla Mueller Mourned By US As Family Confirms Death

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SHE was a young woman with a gift for empathy and a smile for everyone but when the town of Prescott first lost Kayla Mueller it went about its business, unaware of the terrible secret.

For 18 months most people in t​he picturesque town in Arizona’s Bradshaw mountains assumed their friend and neighbour was away studying or doing ​voluntary work.

They did not know she was was a hostage in Syria, or that US forces had attempted to rescue her, or that her harrowing fate was going to put the town in headlines.

​Ever since she was a teenager Mueller, 26, had marched and campaigned to raise awareness about suffering in troubled lands far from Prescott’s pine forests and granite mountains.

Only last week ​residents learned that in August 2013 she had fallen into the ​hands of Islamic State (Isis), a fate previously known only to her family, close confidantes and senior officials.

​When it made the news public, ​the terror group said Mueller was killed in a recent Jordanian air strike on one of its Syrian strongholds.

For Prescott, a thunderclap revelation, but not without hope. Maybe Isis was lying. Maybe ​Mueller was alive. Maybe prayers and vigils could save her, and bring her home.

“They held hope out because you always do until you have confirmation of bad news,” said one neighbour, who declined to be named, citing the Mueller family’s request for privacy.

On Tuesday, the town learned it had lost ​her forever. The White House and the Muellers ​issued statements saying they had received information confirming her death.

“It’s a tough day. We’re still taking it in,” Linda Ballard, who knows the family, told the Guardian.

Mueller’s parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, and her brother Eric, said in their statement: “Our hearts are breaking for our only daughter, but we will continue on in peace, dignity, and love for her.” Sheriff’s deputies blocked off the only road leading to their home.

President Barack Obama told Buzzfeed ​he was heartbroken and that the US policy of not paying a ransom was “as tough as anything I do”. He said the administration tried to save her. “I deployed an entire operation – at significant risk – to rescue not only her but the other individuals who had been held, and probably missed them by a day or two, precisely because we had that commitment.”

It appeared to be a reference to a commando raid on an oil refinery in northern Syria last year. US officials have questioned Isis’s claim that Jordanian air strikes killed Mueller.

People in Prescott who had spent the past few days praying for her deliverance gathered at ​a tree-lined town square, a short drive from her home, to mourn and pay tribute.

A phalanx of television cameras transformed the spot, which usually hosts craft fairs and picnickers, into a stage for an emotional press conference.

“She did ordinary things in extraordinary measure,” said Kathleen Day, the head of United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University where Mueller had studied. A letter written in captivity showed how Mueller retained her spirit and desire to connect, even teaching her guards origami, said Day. “We took delight in that. Kayla remained Kayla.”

Lori Lyon, a maternal aunt, said her niece did more than many people can imagine doing in a lifetime. “At a young age, she knew her calling.” Kayla touched the world’s heart, she said, her voice cracking. “The world grieves with us. The world mourns with us.” Lyon broke away from the cameras, unable to say more.

Mueller was seized by Isis fighters in August 2013 as she left a hospital run by the Spanish branch of Médecins Sans Frontières in Aleppo. In her letter, which her family said was written in the spring of 2014, Mueller said she had been “treated with the utmost respect ​and kindness”, adding that she was being kept in a safe location, “completely unharmed ​and healthy”.

Mueller had a remarkable ability to always find a silver lining, said her friend Eryn Street. “Kayla had such great empathy. It’s hard to find that in this world. It’s really rare.” Street, tears streaming, said she was not sure she could live in a world without Mueller. “But I do know that we’re all living in a better world because of her.”

Prescott, a windy, dusty town known mainly for Wyatt Earp and other figures from the old west, was slowly absorbing its loss, said Catherine Sebold, the town’s communications and public affairs manager.

“This is a tight-knit community. Like any small town everybody is very protective of each other. A lot of people didn’t know about it, they had no idea she was over there. Everybody is very shocked and very upset with the terrorists. To have a small town thrust into the international headlines, it’s just crazy that this is happening here.”

Prescott would honour Mueller according to the family’s wishes, Sebold added. – The Guardian

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