Four Egyptians kidnapped in Baghdad

Gunmen waylaid a minibus carrying foreign technicians to their jobs at a mobile telephone company in western Baghdad today, seizing four Egyptians in the second kidnapping of foreigners in the Iraqi capital within a week.

Gunmen waylaid a minibus carrying foreign technicians to their jobs at a mobile telephone company in western Baghdad today, seizing four Egyptians in the second kidnapping of foreigners in the Iraqi capital within a week.

The daylight ambush occurred only two days after gunmen grabbed an Italian woman journalist near Baghdad University, raising fears of a new wave of kidnappings after a decline in abductions since last year’s capture of a rebel stronghold west of Baghdad.

Elsewhere, insurgents killed two Iraqi National Guard soldiers and wounded three others in an ambush south of Baghdad. Two rockets exploded near Baghdad International Airport and a third hit an Iraqi National Guard building in a western suburb. There were no reports of casualties.

The violence has continued despite the January 30 election, when Iraqis chose a new National Assembly in the first nationwide balloting since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

A final tally is expected by Thursday, but initial returns point to a landslide by Shiite Muslim candidates endorsed by their clerics. Shiites are believed to comprise about 60% of Iraq’s 26 million people.

On the other hand, many Sunni Arabs, estimated at 20% of the population and the core of the insurgency, are believed to have stayed home, either out of fear of rebel reprisal or because of a boycott call by Sunni clerics.

The four Egyptians were seized early today near the Mansour district of western Baghdad, Egyptian and Iraqi officials said. They worked for Iraqna, a subsidiary of the Egyptian firm Orascom Telecommunications, which operates the mobile phone network in Baghdad and central Iraq.

Six other Egyptians working for Iraqna were kidnapped in two separate incidents in September. All were ultimately freed although Orascom said at the time that it was committed to continuing its work in Iraq.

No group claimed responsibility for the latest abduction. On Friday, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was kidnapped by gunmen who blocked her car outside Baghdad University. Sgrena, 56, is a veteran reporter for the communist daily Il Manifesto.

Her colleagues appealed to her captors to free her, citing the journalist’s anti-American stance and saying that holding her would damage the image of Iraq.

A statement on an Internet bulletin board used by extremist groups said Sgrena would be subjected to the ”rule of God,” a phrase that usually means punishment by death.

The new web message was signed by the Jihad Organisation. It wasn’t clear whether the group was the same as one that posted an Internet statement hours after the abduction on Friday.

Two other foreigners – Brazilian engineer Joao Jose Vasconcelos Jr., and French journalist Florence Aubenas – were believed kidnapped last month. Al-Jazeera aired a claim of responsibility for Vasconcelos by a group that showed his identification cards. No group has claimed responsibility for kidnapping Aubenas.

More than 170 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003, and some have been beheaded on graphic videos distributed on the Web or to Arab television stations.

The wave of abductions subsided after US and Iraqi troops stormed the insurgent bastion of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, last November, discovering what US officials termed “hostage slaughterhouses”.

However, the abductions of five foreigners in Baghdad within three days raised fears of a new wave of kidnappings.

Elsewhere, an Iraqi civilian was wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded but missed an Iraqi police patrol in the southern port city of Basra, police said.

Attackers gunned down an Iraqi contractor who apparently worked with the US military, and police in the Shiite city of Karbala reported that a suicide car bomber struck a US convoy south of the city this morning, destroying a US vehicle. There was no word on casualties.

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