UK minister branded ‘genuinely irresponsible’ after claiming British Isil hostage John Cantlie is alive

The UK’s security minister was accused on Tuesday night of being “genuinely irresponsible” after he claimed a British hostage held by Islamic State was still alive.

Senior Whitehall sources said Ben Wallace, the security minister, may have put John Cantlie’s life in jeopardy by commenting on his status.

The source said Mr Wallace had “massively undermined” his own department. Mr Cantlie, a British photographer, was kidnapped six years ago by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

His whereabouts and status are not known, according to well-placed sources inside the Government.

But Mr Wallace went off message at a meeting with foreign reporters at the Home Office on Tuesday, insisting Mr Cantlie was alive when asked.

Within hours, the Home Office was urging media outlets to show sensitivity in repeating the claim.

“We do not discuss individual kidnap cases and speculation is unhelpful,” a Home Office spokesman said.

The Whitehall source said: “Our position on Mr Cantlie has not changed for some time. We genuinely do not know if he is dead or alive.

“But if he is alive it is genuinely irresponsible for Ben Wallace to make the comments he has because this could put his life in jeopardy. It could massively undermine any investigations. This could prompt his captors to move him, or even worse. It is a massive own goal by Ben Wallace. The threat on Mr Cantlie’s life has increased exponentially.”

Mr Cantlie was kidnapped in Syria in late 2012 alongside the American journalist James Foley.

While Mr Foley was beheaded on camera in 2014, Mr Cantlie was kept alive by Isil and forced to front a series of propaganda videos where he spoke in English to the camera.

In early videos, he appeared in an orange jumpsuit like other Western hostages. In later videos, he was dressed in civilian clothes and acted like a journalist reporting on conditions inside the so-called caliphate.

He last appeared in a video from Mosul in December 2016 and there has been no confirmation of his status for more than two years.

The Free John Cantlie campaign, a support group run by his family, greeted the news with cautious optimism.

“We are aware of the current news circulating that John Cantlie is alive. Whilst this is not substantiated at present, we continue to hope and pray that this turns out to be true. Thank you for your continued support,” the group said in a statement.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group fighting with Western forces against Isil, have said they too had information Mr Cantlie may be alive.

The battle against Isil in their last pocket in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor has been paused for 10 days, with reports suggesting it is over the fate of captured SDF fighters being held by the jihadists along with other high-value hostages.

If Mr Wallace’s claim is true, it is unclear if Mr Cantlie is in Syria or in the desert of western Iraq where Isil leaders fled before the offensive on Deir Ezzor.

Iraqi media reported in mid-2017 that Mr Cantlie was killed by an air strike as he crossed the Tigris river by boat from west to east Mosul during the offensive against Isil in the northern Iraqi city.

However, a French Isis fighter told the French magazine Paris Match in October 2017 that he had seen Mr Cantlie “seven or eight months ago” in Raqqa, the Isil stronghold in Syria.

A Scottish women living in Mosul told The Telegraph in an interview in early 2017 that she saw Mr Cantlie walking  around the central market the year before.

“He was walking with a couple of Isil minders through the market,” Ellise Speed said. “Then I saw him from a taxi a few months later, I wanted more than anything to get out and speak to him, to see if he was OK, but I was worried for my family and did not want to get them in any trouble, so we carried on driving.

“No one knows why Isil allowed him to live, how he managed to be the only one to survive.”