Briton abducted in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Gunmen kidnapped two Americans and a Briton today from a house in an upmarket Baghdad neighbourhood where many foreign companies are based, the Interior Ministry and witnesses said.

The three were employed by Gulf Services Company, a Middle East-based construction firm, and were seized from a two-story house surrounded by a wall in the al-Mansour neighborhood, said Colonel Adnan Abdel-Rahman, a ministry official.

At least four other foreigners - two Frenchmen and two Italian women - have been taken hostage in recent days. Yesterday, villagers north of Baghdad had found three decapitated bodies, said to be Iraqis, with their hands bound.

A US Embassy spokesman speaking on condition of anonymity could not immediately confirm the report that the Americans and Briton were kidnapped but said officials were investigating. A British diplomat in Baghdad was also unable to confirm any details.

Neighbors said they heard two vehicles drive up to the house around dawn and later noticed that the normally closed sliding iron gate was open, so they called the police. They said they didn't know who was living there.

A police official who asked not to be named said a car was missing from the house where the hostages were believed to have been kidnapped. He said the three were apparently in the garden when the attack took place and that there was no sign of any fighting.

Several foreign contracting companies and security firms are based in the wealthy al-Mansour neighborhood.

Insurgents waging a 17-month insurgency in Iraq have kidnapped more than 100 foreigners in a bid to destabilize the interim authorities and drive coalition forces from the country. Many have been executed.

At least four Westerners are currently being held hostage in Iraq.

Two Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, were abducted Sept. 7 by armed men from their offices in central Baghdad. They were working on school and water projects for the aid group "A Bridge To...". There is no word on their fate.

Two French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, were kidnapped last month by a militant group that demanded France rescind a ban on the wearing of headscarves in public schools. Paris refused and the law has already gone into effect.

Thursday's kidnapping of the three men came a day after villagers found the three decapitated bodies in the town of Dijiel, 25 miles north of Baghdad.

The bodies were found Wednesday in nylon bags, the heads in bags alongside them, said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman of the Interior Ministry. They were all men with tattoos, including one with the letter 'H' on his arm, but no documents were found on them, he said.

A US military official said the bodies appeared to be Iraqis and had their hands tied behind their backs.

While insurgents have often beheaded foreign hostages in their fight against the government and coalition forces, it is not a tactic usually used against Iraqis, who are more often abducted for money.

Residents from a nearby village found the bodies shortly after dawn and notified the Iraqi national guard, said Iraqi Lt. Ahmad Farouk.

An Associated Press photographer saw the three corpses lined up with their heads by their sides on the floor at the guard compound before US troops collected them and handed them over to police. Two wore jeans and shirts and the third wore sweat pants and a T-shirt. All appeared young.

Also Wednesday, militants released a Turkish man identified as Aytulla Gezmen, an Arabic language translator who was taken hostage in late July, according to a videotape obtained by Associated Press Television News. The Turkish Foreign Ministry confirmed he had been freed.

A group calling itself The Shura Council of the Mujahedeen said in a separate video Tuesday that it was freeing Gezmen after he converted to Islam and repented working for the Americans.

A Jordanian transport company said Wednesday it had ceased to operate in Iraq in the hope of winning the release of one of its drivers, Turki Simer Khalifeh al-Breizat, kidnapped by a separate militant group. The kidnappers gave the company 48 hours Tuesday to pull out.

The developments follow a surge in violence that has killed more than 200 people in the past four days in a brazen and coordinated campaign focused increasingly on the capital - the center of authority for Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his American allies.