Desperate search after mass-kidnapping of Sunnis ends with hostages found alive

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A desperate day in Iraq ended with dramatic police raids throughout Baghdad last night, when all the hostages seized earlier in a mass kidnapping were reported to have been freed.

In the largest kidnapping since the American-led invasion, armed men in the uniforms of police commandos had raided the Higher Education Ministry in Baghdad yesterday morning and abducted scores of staff and visitors at gunpoint.

Most of those taken were said to be Sunni Muslims, raising fears that this was yet another violent example of the vicious sectarian conflict racking the country. The Interior Ministry said that nine police officers, six of them senior, were later arrested for possible complicity, among them were those in charge of Karadah district, where the Education Ministry is based.

But, last night, the state television channel Iraqiya reported that most of the hostages had been freed in a number of police operations. It quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying that operations were continuing into the early hours to free the remaining hostages.

Al-Furat, a television station controlled by a major Shia political group, said that 25 hostages were still missing. There were no reports on whether there had been any injuries. A presidential security adviser, Wafiq al-Sammarai, however, told the BBC that the rest of the hostages were freed shortly before midnight in Baghdad (2100 GMT).

The abductions at first led to an immediate order for all universities and colleges across the country to be shut until further notice. Amid fears that those taken hostage may be killed, the Education Minister, Abed Theyeb, said: "I have only one choice and that is to suspend classes at universities. We have no other choice, I am not ready to see more professors get killed." The closure order was lifted later after the government lowered the number of people snatched from 150 to 50, and said that 20 had been released.

Meanwhile, security forces reported 89 dead bodies found yesterday, many of them with hands tied behind their backs and bearing marks of torture.

In the worst attack, 21 people were killed and 25 injured outside Sadr City, the sprawling Shia slum on the outskirts of the capital. Mohammad Ali, a shopkeeper, said: "I could see people on fire. We tried to rescue some women from a minibus but they died in our arms."

Around 160 academics have been killed since the invasion, and thousands more have fled the country, many of them women who have been warned not to work. Alaa Makki, head of the education committee at the Iraqi parliament, described what had happened as a "national catastrophe. The terrorists want to stop the process of education in Iraq." Mr Makki said the gunmen had a list of those to be taken and had told guards they were from the government's anti-corruption body checking on security ahead of a visit by the US ambassador. Those kidnapped included the institute's deputy general directors, employees, and visitors, he said.

The largest Sunni group in parliament, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said in a statement: "They are saying up to 50 vehicles were used and they managed to move into the area most heavily controlled by the security forces. How is this possible?"

Abd Dhiab, a Sunni education minister, said: "We know police vehicles followed the kidnappers to a specific area and after that we do not know what happened."

Lt-Col Christopher Garver, spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said: "This is a terrible crime and we will support all efforts by the Iraqi government to bring these criminals to justice."

Just under a hundred gunmen had arrived in a convoy of four-wheel drives, used by Iraq's security forces, wearing the blue uniform of the police commandos, an overwhelmingly Shia force blamed for killings of Sunnis. They closed off the roads leading to the ministry before sweeping through the four-storey building and departing with their captives in no more than 15 minutes.