Iraqi gunmen kidnap scores in brazen raid

At least 70 abducted from ministry office by men in uniforms

November 15, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms and masks kidnapped scores of people from a Higher Education Ministry office in a highly coordinated raid yesterday morning, witnesses said.

Dozens of gunmen, armed with AK-47s and U.S.-made grenade launchers, stormed the five-story building and searched it room by room, randomly detaining people, according to education officials and witnesses.

To help them get away, the abductors cordoned off Nidal Street, a few blocks from City Hall, with more than 30 trucks and armored sport utility vehicles. The trucks did not have license plates, witnesses said, but many had high-caliber machine guns mounted in their back beds.

Witnesses offered various estimates of the number of victims, but most said at least 70 people were abducted. The large-scale operation, which witnesses said took a matter of minutes, was among the biggest and most audacious mass kidnappings in a city where abductions for financial or sectarian reasons have become routine.

In some cases, captives have been released after ransom was paid or have yet to be found. But in many incidents, the victims' tortured and handcuffed bodies have turned up on Baghdad's streets.

Kidnappings by men in police uniforms have become among the most feared because relatively few victims have returned alive.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalaf said five senior police officials were detained and interrogated after yesterday's abductions, including the police chief in charge of the Karada neighborhood in southeast Baghdad where the incident took place. Khalaf declined to say whether Iraqi authorities believed that the police officials were directly involved, but he said the officials were, at the very least, negligent for allowing the abductions to occur under their watch.

"They could have reported to us that this raid took place," Khalaf said. "These people who raided that building are not policemen at all, they are just criminals."

Khalaf said 20 of the captives, among them Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Christians, were quickly freed because of checkpoints set up by the Interior Ministry. "We closed more than 20 neighborhoods in East Baghdad and cut them off," he said. "They had to throw some of the people out of their cars so they wouldn't get caught."

Khalaf's account of captives being freed could not be independently verified.

A guard stationed at a small hospital behind the higher education building said that the gunmen appeared to be highly organized.

"They came from there, waving like they were official," said the guard, Abu Hassan, pointing to the end of an alleyway behind the offices. "They looked trigger-happy though. One officer pointed his gun at a man on a bicycle. They even took civilians just standing around on the street."

Among those taken were 17 security guards stationed at the facility, the Scholarship and Cultural Relations Directorate of the Higher Education and Scientific Research Ministry. Also abducted were ministry employees and visitors who had business in the building. The captors separated men from women, locking the men together in a daisy-chain with plastic handcuffs and loading them into vehicles at gunpoint.

While no women appeared to have been taken hostage, "they beat some of the women," said a witness, Abu Aya, who said one of the captives, a cafeteria worker, was his cousin. "One woman's eye was bloody."

The kidnappers drove off in a crackle of gunfire, said Basil Ismael Khateeb, a spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry. "The attackers drove ministry vehicles and opened fire in the air to clear the way for them, just like official convoys," he said.

According to three men who were later released, the kidnappers "asked the detainees about their names and their residential areas while beating them on their heads," Khateeb said.

Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, declined to say whether he thought a Shiite militia group was involved, saying such speculation could jeopardize his ministry's investigation.

The incident was similar to a raid on a Sunni Arab-owned meatpacking plant in Baghdad more than a month ago in which gunmen dressed as police commandos kidnapped at least 22 workers, several of whom were discovered dead days later. The raid sparked an investigation by the U.S. Army and moved Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to suspend a police unit for retraining.

U.S. forces who investigated that kidnapping blamed Shiite militiamen, who have infiltrated into Interior Ministry police units by the thousands and have carried out sectarian killings and kidnappings against Sunni Arabs during the past 18 months.

Among the largest previous mass kidnappings was one in June where gunmen clad in camouflage uniforms seized more than 50 bystanders at a bus stop area in downtown Baghdad, handcuffing the men and hauling them away in police trucks.

At the higher education building, Nour Hussein, 23, a cleaner, said that the gunmen were efficient in lining up the detainees.

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