Germans 'targeted by Iraqi kidnappers'

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The Independent Online

The German government said it had made initial contact with gunmen holding two engineers hostage in Iraq after an Arabic television channel broadcast a video of the two men pleading for Berlin to help free them.

The engineers, Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich, were seized near an oil refinery at Baiji, 110 miles north of Baghdad on Tuesday. Their capture led to fears that disclosures about German government ransom payments to previous Iraqi hostage takers had prompted the kidnapping. There was also concern that reports saying German intelligence agents had provided the US Army with information about military targets in Iraq could have spurred the hostage-takers to kidnap Germans.

Yesterday, a video broadcast by the Arabic al-Jazeera TV channel showed the two men seated on the ground in front of gunmen brandishing automatic weapons. The hostages named their employers - the German engineering firm Cyrotec - and begged the Berlin government to "do everything" to free them.

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor, said her government would do the utmost to secure the release of the two men. "We condemn this cruel hostage-taking in the strongest possible terms," she said.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, said yesterday that his government had been approached by the kidnappers, who claimed to belong to a Sunni Muslim extremist group calling itself Ansar al- Tahwid wal Sunna (Followers of the heavenly uniqueness and the Sunna). "The images that have reached us from Iraq are shocking," Mr Steinmeier said. "Our government is trying to proceed with circumspection so as not to endanger the lives of the hostages in any way." The hostage-takers appeared to have issued no demands to the German government, prompting concerns that they were attempting to copy another Iraqi extremist group, which kidnapped the German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff in November last year.

Mrs Osthoff, 43, was freed three weeks later after the German government reportedly paid a £2.8m ($5m) ransom to the kidnappers. Despite government attempts to keep the deal a secret, Mrs Osthoff openly discussed the payment of ransom money in a subsequent magazine interview. The affair was given further publicity earlier this week following a series of allegations which suggested that Mrs Osthoff had pocketed some of the ransom money.

Subsequent statements attributed to German Foreign Ministry "sources", which denied outright that Mrs Osthoff had behaved incorrectly, appeared to confirm Germany had paid a ransom to secure her release.

German security experts expressed their dismay at the disclosures only a day before the two engineers went missing, claiming that they would encourage extremist groups to target Germans.

Yesterday there was also speculation that the hostage-takers had political rather than purely financial motives. German media reports earlier this month alleged that Germany's BND intelligence service had kept two agents in Iraq during the US invasion, who supplied the US Army with information about targets.

The German government has denied the allegations and insists that the BND only supplied the US with information about buildings such as hospitals and embassies which should not be targeted. Opposition MPs have called for a full parliamentary inquiry into the affair, claiming it had helped to undermine the "good reputation" Germany was said to enjoy in Iraq because of its opposition to the war.

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