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Iraq blames kidnap of Britons on Shiite militia

(AFP) Iraqi and British officials scrambled Wednesday to get to the bottom of the brazen daylight kidnapping of five British contractors snatched from a finance ministry building in Baghdad. 

The Britons — a consultant and his four armed bodyguards — were taken on Tuesday by a large group on gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms. 

“We are pursuing this case very vigorously, I would say, because the nature of this kidnapping is very strange,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told AFP. 

“The location of this finance ministry computer centre and the nature of the operation and the number of people involved, I think all indicate more a militia than a terrorist group, let’s say,” he added. 

In an earlier interview with BBC radio, Zebari noted the raid took place near Sadr City, a stronghold for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, but he told AFP it was too soon to blame a specific group. 

Nevertheless, the nature of the kidnapping clearly points towards the involvement of one of the Shiite militant groups that has infiltrated Iraqi forces, rather than a Sunni insurgent outfit such as Al-Qaeda, he said. 

Representatives of Sadr’s movement, which controls Sadr City and fields thousands of militia fighters, many of whom have infiltrated police units, categorically denied any involvement in the operation. 

“Kidnapping operations conflict with the peaceful steps that Sadr advocates and are in direct contradiction with the course his office is adopting now,” spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi told AFP from the movement’s base in Najaf. 

The Iraqi presidency, prime minister’s office and interior ministry refused to comment, while the US military said the kidnap was a matter for the British embassy. 

Witnesses outside the downtown ministry building where the kidnapping took place, said the operation appeared well organised and was carried out by gunmen in official vehicles and uniforms. 

“They went inside and escorted out the foreigners, but one managed to hide in the basement,” said one of ministry’s security guards who declined to reveal his name because of the extreme sensitivity of the situation. 

US forces arrived on the scene an hour later, cordoned off the area and conducted a number of searches, witnesses said. The American troops took the foreigner away, along with several more finance ministry guards. 

“We have been doing some investigations, asking some questions in pursuit of our regular missions,” US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver said. 

Separately, the military announced that it had raided a Sadr City kidnapping cell, but it was not clear whether this was linked to the missing Britons. 

“Two suspected terrorists were detained and one was wounded during raids targeting individuals believed to be responsible for, and active participants in, a known kidnapping cell as well as attacks on coalition forces,” it said. 

All told, US-led forces detained “23 suspected terrorists” in raids around Iraq on Wednesday, the military statement said. 

Britain’s top-secret “Cobra” crisis unit was expected to meet for a second straight day Wednesday to find a way to secure the release of the Britons. 

“We’re working hard on the ground, we’re liaising with the Iraqi authorities,” said a British Foreign Office spokesman in London. “We have to establish the facts and there will be all sorts of decisions taken.” 

Four of the five Britons were members of a security detail working for Garda World, a Canadian firm, while the fifth was their client, a consultant under contract to the US government to train Iraqi civil servants. 

Witnesses to the abduction said it unfolded without much violence after four blue and white pickup trucks with crude armour welded on them, like those used by the National Police, pulled up to the building. 

“They were led by a major and a very official looking man wearing a suit,” said a shopkeeper who asked not to be named. 

“They went in, stayed for only 15 minutes and then left — I heard one shot but thought someone had made a mistake.” 

A building guard said the gunmen were polite and explained they were with the Commission on Public Integrity, an anti-graft agency. “They started taking photos of the building and said ‘We have official orders’,” he added. 

Saad Mohammed, who works as a parking attendant near the building, said that at first everything seemed normal, even as the foreigners were brought out of the building and driven off. 

“Then all the civil servants and people at the building came rushing out. They were terrified and hysterical and yelling there had been a kidnapping,” he added. 

Mass kidnappings by uniformed men were common last year and were believed to be the work of Shiite militias with close ties to the police.

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May 30, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, news, personal, politics, random, religion, Terrorism, Terrorism In The U.S., Terrorism News, Uncategorized, War-On-Terror

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