U.S., British fight at kidnapping site

Four Americans, one Austrian abducted Thursday

November 18, 2006|By Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes | Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and British troops clashed with gunmen in southern Iraq yesterday after the kidnapping of four Americans and an Austrian near the site of the battle.

While Iraqi authorities reported that at least two Iraqis had been killed in the crossfire, there were conflicting reports about whether the gunfight was tied to the Thursday abduction and about the fate of the five men. All five were private security guards who were seized along with nine other people near the Kuwait border.

Iraqi authorities first said the Austrian had been killed and one American was found wounded. But the police chief in the southern city of Basra, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Hadi Musawi, later said that Iraqi security forces had managed to free two of the five men. He also said that the Austrian had not been killed. The nine other hostages - from India, Pakistan and the Philippines - were released, Iraqi authorities said.

As Musawi spoke by telephone from an area he said was near the kidnappers' holdout, gunshots could be heard in the background.

In Washington, a State Department official said reports that one of the contractors was wounded yesterday was likely the result of officials conflating two separate attacks.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing unconfirmed information, said that U.S. officials were unsure about what happened, but believed the wounded contractor was from a different company and was involved in a separate attack.

"We are trying to find out exactly what happened," the official said. "It is a very fluid situation."

Separately, State Department spokesman Gonzalo R. Gallegos in Washington and U.S. officials in Baghdad released details about the Thursday abduction, saying the victims worked for Crescent Security Group and were traveling in a 43-vehicle supply convoy from Kuwait.

"The supply convoy was stopped at what appeared to be a police checkpoint near Safwan," Gallegos said. "Nine drivers, and one Austrian security personnel were abducted by people posing as police. All the personnel worked for Crescent. Nineteen trucks and one security vehicle were also taken."

The gunmen wore Iraqi police uniforms, officials said.

Gallegos said U.S. officials were working with the British and Iraqis to do everything possible to bring about the workers' safe return. The State Department has contacted the family members of the contractors. But, because of security concerns, Gallegos declined to release the Americans' names.

Gallegos said he had no information on who might have conducted the attack.

The abduction, the third mass kidnapping this week, underscored the terrible security situation in the country. On Tuesday, gunmen raided a government office in Baghdad, abducting as many as 150 academics and educators. It is unclear if all have been released. Two days later, at least 15 people were taken from a teashop in the capital. None have been heard from since then.

In all three cases, the kidnappers wore police uniforms.

Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, said that British troops got involved in the shootout with insurgents Friday during a raid near Safwan. He said the operation was not connected to the kidnapping.

While the area where the kidnapping took place is dominated by Sunni Arabs, the south in general is controlled by Shiite Muslim militias. During the past year, the south has become increasingly lawless as competing militias fight over money and political control. Killings and kidnappings are now common. In October, 17 Iraqis - mostly translators working with the security forces - were pulled off a minibus and killed.

On Thursday night, mortars and rockets rained down on the British bases in Basra, although no one was hurt in the attack. A British soldier was injured when gunmen attacked a military convoy, said a British army spokesman.

Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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