Four mutilated bodies discovered as foreign workers told to pull out

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The Independent Online

Four bodies feared to be those of US contractors missing in Iraq since last Friday were discovered in a roadside shallow grave outside Baghdad last night, raising the political pressure on President Bush less than two hours before he was due to give a rare prime-time news conference to address the mounting crisis in Iraq.

Four bodies feared to be those of US contractors missing in Iraq since last Friday were discovered in a roadside shallow grave outside Baghdad last night, raising the political pressure on President Bush less than two hours before he was due to give a rare prime-time news conference to address the mounting crisis in Iraq.

The US State Department said it was too soon to confirm the identities of the bodies, described by one official as "mutilated beyond recognition". It was also not clear whether they had perished in an ambush, their bodies consumed by flames from an explosion, or had been seized alive and then executed.

All indications, however, suggested that they were among the seven US contractors who disappeared following an ambush on a fuel convoy near Baghdad airport. The grave site was near the intersection of highways 1 and 10 on the road between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, very close to the ambush site. US officials told an NBC reporter in Baghdad that they had been directed to the site by an Iraqi who believed Americans were buried there.

Halliburton, the Texas oil services company whose Kellogg Brown and Root subsidiary has the contract to ship supplies to the US military in Iraq, said in a statement it had been informed of the discovery and, although it echoed the government's lack of confirmation, acknowledged the likelihood that the bodies would turn out to be KBR employees.

As the number of hostages has mounted in the past week to the current total of more than 40, several governments have urged foreign workers to leave the country. The British Foreign Office yesterday joined Germany, France and the Czech Republic in calling on everyone except those with essential business in Iraq to leave.

The kidnaps, particularly when the victims are shown on television, put intense pressure on their home governments. Four Italians, said to be employees of a private American security company, were shown seated on the ground and holding up their passports on al-Jazeera television yesterday. Armed men standing around them called on Italy to withdraw its troops from Iraq. So far, none have been killed.

The kidnappers of three Japanese, seized last week, had threatened to burn them to death on 11 April unless Japan withdrew its troops, but there is no word of their fate. Five Ukrainians and three Russians were released yesterday. Their seizure was planned by masked gunmen who invaded their suburban house. By one account, the kidnappers were looking for workers from countries belonging to the US-led coalition, and Russia opposed the invasion of Iraq. As soon as the gunmen realised the nationality of those they had taken, they let them go with apologies, said Interenergoservis, their company.

An estimated 1,000 British civilians, including contractors, aid workers and journalists, are in Iraq, and there are fears that they could be targeted by Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters as they attempt to use hostages to rid the country of occupying forces.

Much of the hostage-taking appears to be random. Gunmen on the roads are often village militia. They seize foreigners and local leaders, and later decide what to do with them. It does not yet appear that hostage-taking is an organised political tactic.

Many of the foreigners kidnapped have been seized on the main highway between Baghdad and Jordan, where it passes near Fallujah and Ramadi. Even while Fallujah has remained quiet, fighting continued yesterday in the area, with one US helicopter brought down by a rocket 12 miles east of the city. Four US soldiers were wounded as they rushed to the crash site.

* Russia will begin the evacuation of some of its citizens from Iraq tomorrow, Russian news agencies reported today.

The Ministry of Emergency Situations plans to send seven special flights from Moscow to Baghdad and Kuwait to evacuate specialists from Russia and former Soviet republics who have been working in Iraq, the agencies said.

"Preliminary plans are to evacuate 553 Russian citizens and 263 citizens from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, who are working on Russian contracts at facilities in Iraq," the Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

The first flight is scheduled for tomorrow morning, the said.

SIX DAYS OF KIDNAPPING

8 April

A video shows three Japanese - a student, Noriaki Imai, 18; an aid worker, Nahoko Takato, 34; and a photojournalist, Soichiro Koriyama, 32. The captors had threatened to burn the hostages alive unless Japan withdrew its troops. Iranian television airs footage of Nabil George Razuq, 30, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and Fadi Ihsan Fadel, a Canadian aid worker, said to be held by the Ansara-Din group, which describes them as Israeli spies. Seven South Korean evangelical church pastors are freed.

9 April

Insurgents attack a US convoy in Abu Ghurayb, near Baghdad. Three days later, Lt-Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of US forces in Iraq, says seven contractors for Kellogg, Brown & Root and two US soldiers went missing. An American being held, Thomas Hamill, says he was the only survivor of the convoy attack.

10 April

A group says it is holding 30 foreigners and threatens to behead them unless US forces lift a blockade of Fallujah. The German Foreign Ministry says Tobias Ritrath, 25, and Thomas Haffenker, 38, died escorting diplomats from Jordan to Baghdad.

11 April

Gary Teeley, 37, a British civilian missing in Nasiriyah, is freed. Eight others - three Pakistanis, two Turks, a Filipino, an Indian and a Nepalese - are freed.

12 April

Two Czech TV journalists may have been kidnapped, their company says. In addition, Czech state radio reporter Vit Pohanka is unaccounted for.

Seven Chinese nationals who had been abducted in Fallujah the day before are released.

Five kidnapped Ukrainians and three Russians are freed.

13 April

Four men described as Italians are held by the Mujahedin Brigades, which demand Italy withdraws troops.

THE HOSTAGES

CONFIRMED KIDNAPS (NOT YET RELEASED):

3 Japanese

1 Palestinian

1 Canadian

1 American

4 Italians

CONFIRMED KIDNAPS (RELEASED):

7 South Koreans

1 Briton

3 Pakistanis

2 Turks

1 Indian

1 Nepali

1 Filipino

7 Chinese

5 Ukrainians

3 Russians

REPORTED MISSING

2 Germans (believed dead)

3 Czechs

2 US soldiers

7 Contractors (presumed US, believed dead)

UNCONFIRMED KIDNAPS

30 foreign hostages (no proof from kidnappers)

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