Egyptian diplomat abducted in Iraq

Senior official's nation had promised aid to interim government

July 24, 2004|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Militants kidnapped a senior Egyptian diplomat in Iraq yesterday, according to a videotape broadcast on Arab television. It was believed to be the first abduction of a high-ranking diplomatic figure in the country's turbulent postwar period.

The Arab television network Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing six masked, armed men dressed in black standing behind a man they identified as Mohammed Mamdouh Helmi Qutb, described by the network as the third highest-ranking diplomat in Egypt's Embassy in Baghdad.

Egypt's diplomatic mission in Baghdad issued a statement confirming that Qutb had been kidnapped while leaving a mosque, the Associated Press reported. The militants made no specific threat against the diplomat.

Calling itself the Lions of Allah Brigade, the group said the abduction was a response to recent remarks by the Egyptian government that it was preparing to assist Iraq's interim government by sending in a team of security experts. Egypt had previously offered to train Iraqi security forces in Egypt but had not planned to deploy any security personnel in Iraq.

Nearly 70 people have been taken hostage in Iraq, many of them truck drivers and nearly all of them workers for companies helping the country rebuild its shattered economy. However, yesterday's kidnapping appeared to signal the insurgency's readiness to ratchet up pressure on countries that have sent troops, contractors or other assistance to the Iraqi interim government.

Qutb's kidnapping also came as the Philippine government drew criticism from the United States for capitulating to the demands of militants who had threatened to behead a Filipino truck driver if Philippine peacekeepers were not withdrawn from Iraq. The last of the 51 Philippine troops in Iraq left the country Monday. The truck driver, Angelo de la Cruz, was released the next day.

The United States warned that Manila's decision was likely to encourage militants to commit more kidnappings. U.S. charge d'affaires Joseph Mussomeli said yesterday that "a small group of terrorists told the Philippine government what to do, and the government did it. That's the concern."

The fate of seven Kenyan, Indian and Egyptian truck drivers kidnapped by a group calling itself the Holders of the Black Banners remained unknown. This week, the group had threatened to behead a hostage every 72 hours beginning tonight if the Kuwaiti trucking company they worked for failed to pull out of Iraq.

Yesterday, the militant group changed its demands, giving the company 48 hours to compensate the families of those killed during fighting with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

The Egyptian diplomat's abduction came as the United States launched its seventh airstrike in five weeks in Fallujah against suspected guerrillas loyal to militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Local hospital officials and witnesses said the attack killed no one but injured five Iraqi civilians, including three children.

The early-morning strike was directed at a group of 10 to 12 insurgents gathered in a courtyard outside a house in Fallujah, said U.S. Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director of Multi-National Forces operations.

Iraq's latest assassination occurred yesterday in the northern city of Mosul, when gunmen shot to death a retired Iraqi general who once worked in a coalition employment office trying to get Iraqis jobs in reconstruction projects.

Near Samarra, a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers traveling in a convoy late Thursday, the U.S. military announced yesterday. A third soldier was wounded.

Recent kidnappings that ended in the beheading of hostages received a strong condemnation yesterday from Shiite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led Friday prayers for the first time in two months.

Speaking at a mosque in the Shiite holy city of Kufa, Sadr said the beheadings of three hostages since April, including American Nick Berg, violated Islamic law, the AP reported.

"We condemn what some people are doing regarding the beheading of prisoners, and it is illegal according to Islamic law," Sadr said. "Anybody doing this is a criminal, and we will punish him according to Islamic law."

Near Baghdad, a van collided with a U.S. tank late Thursday, killing nine Iraqi civilians and injuring 10 others, said Spc. Jonathan McCue, a spokesman for U.S.-led military forces.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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