Five security contractors - four Americans and an Austrian - were being held hostage today after their convoy was hijacked in southern Iraq, officials said.
Another nine civilians were travelling with the convoy when it was attacked yesterday near the city of Basra, including men from India, Pakistan and the Philippines, but they have since been released, according to an official with the company those kidnapped worked for, Crescent Security Group.
"We have four American security contractors and one Austrian unaccounted for," he said in a telephone interview from Kuwait, where the company is based. "All the civilian truck drivers have been accounted for, a mix of men from countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity at his request, refused to say how many vehicles were in the convoy, who hijacked it and how the freed captives were released, saying he didn't want to jeopardize the work that US and British forces were doing in handling the crisis.
"I'm not sure what the British and US military have put in motion, and I don't want to release too much information in case it compromises whatever they may be doing. But we're working very closely with them to get this revolved," the official said.
The Crescent Security Group company works mostly in Iraq, and its operations are based in Kuwait. Many of its managers and employees are American.
In Basra, Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, said the hijacking occurred yesterday at 1pm in Safwan, an Iraqi city near the Kuwait border, and that four Americans and an Austrian were still being held.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday that preliminary reports suggested the attacked convoy included about 19 vehicles.
An official familiar with the incident said yesterday that initial reports suggested that the attack occurred at a checkpoint in a location where normally there is no blockade.
In the United States, NBC television reported that the kidnappers were wearing uniforms.
A US State Department official informed the family of Paul Reuben, 39, a former Minneapolis police officer who was working as a security contractor in Iraq, that he was among those captured, his brother, Patrick Reuben, told the Star Tribune newspaper and KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A spokesman for Britain's Ministry of Defence said today that no British civilians or military forces were attacked or taken hostage during the hijacking.
In Baghdad, a spokeswoman for the US military would only confirm today that "an incident occurred at a checkpoint." She added that officials would probably provide more information later.
Italy formally handed over security responsibility of the southern Dhi Qar Province to Iraqi forces in late September, and British troops handed over control of the adjacent southern Muthana province in July.