Up to five Britons were kidnapped in Iraq yesterday by gunmen wearing police uniforms - the largest number of Britons abducted in Iraq in any one incident. The men - four bodyguards and their client - were abducted from inside the finance ministry in Baghdad in what appeared to be an organised and targeted operation involving dozens of men and a convoy of vehicles.
The kidnapping led to a meeting of the Government's emergency response committee, Cobra, yesterday afternoon. The client is believed to be a financial consultant advising the Iraqi government, while the bodyguards are employed by one of the biggest suppliers of security staff in Iraq.
Initial reports stated that the group taken included a German adviser to the ministry and his British bodyguards, but a Foreign Office spokeswoman confirmed last night that all the hostages were British.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the kidnapping but a commander of the Mehdi Army in Basra, Abu Hussein, reportedly claimed the abduction of the five Britons was a "reaction" to the killing of its leader, Wissam Abu Qader. Hussein said: "We will take revenge on the British. There will be more and bigger operations."
The financial consultant was said to be advising the Iraqi finance ministry on computerisation and electronic contracts. The four security staff work for GardaWorld, a Canadian company which holds the contract for providing security for a number of foreign institutions including the British embassy.
Witnesses described how the kidnappers had arrived at the ministry, which is in central Baghdad but outside the heavily protected Green Zone, in about 30 white four-wheel drive vehicles of the type used by the Iraqi security forces. Both ends of the road housing the ministry were blocked off and the uniformed men were allowed to enter the building by the police at the gates.
One Iraqi official said the gunmen knew precisely where they were going. She said the men were working for an American firm that had regularly given lectures at the ministry in the past year. "They entered a lecture theatre... led by a man wearing the uniform of a police major shouting, 'Where are the prisoners? Where are the prisoners?'. One foreigner escaped being captured because he was sitting apart from the others."
Speaking in Libya, Tony Blair said: "We will do everything we possibly can to help," while a spokeswoman for Gardaworld said they were working to "fully investigate" what happened.
The methods used indicated that the gunmen were likely to be members of Shia militias rather than Sunni insurgents. Iraqi sources also claimed that the abductions were in direct retaliation for the killing of Abu Qader, a senior lieutenant of the radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, in an operation involving British and Iraqi government troops in Basra last Friday. rest by British forces of Ahmad Fartusi, Abu Qader's predecessor in charge of the Mehdi Army in Basra, in autumn 2005 led to several attempts by militia to kidnap UK subjects at the time.
Sunni groups have a track record of executing the majority of those they take hostage, whereas the Shia have been much more open to negotiations and have released foreigners they have held. Sunni prisoners have, however, been regularly tortured and murdered by Shia death squads, which sometimes contain members of the security forces.
The abductions came on another day of violence in Iraq in which eight American soldiers were killed, two of them in a helicopter crash. Twenty-five people were killed and 68 injured when a minibus packed with explosives was detonated in central Baghdad. Police also reported finding 33 bodies, most of them shot, dumped in the streets of Baghdad, believed to be victims of Shia-Sunni sectarian violence.
The British mission in Baghdad has trained hostage negotiators as well as teams from the SAS and SBS, and intelligence officials. They had been involved in the past in the searches for the engineering contractor Ken Bigley and the social worker Margaret Hassan, hostages who were both killed, and the peace activist Norman Kember and Rory Carroll, a journalist for The Guardian, who were both freed.
Mr Kember, 76, who had gone to Iraq as a member of a Christian Peacemaker team, refused to testify in November last year against several men alleged to be his kidnappers. He said yesterday that it would be a period of " extreme worry" for the families of the latest kidnap victims. "I don't even know if they have been told yet," Mr Kember said. "But it is they who suffer." Ken Bigley's brother, Paul, said: "I have no idea who they are, or what nationality, but I would gladly speak to their families if they want to speak to me. I would like to tell them to stay strong and hang in there."
Hostage ordeals in Iraq
The peace activist was working with Christian Peacemaker Teams when he was taken hostage aged 74, with three other members on 26 November 2005, by a group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade.
His wife's plea for his release was shown on Al Jazeera television on 5 December 2005. His kidnappers set 10 December as the deadline for the release of all Iraqi prisoners, or the hostages faced execution.
In a video released on 28 January 2006, the kidnappers said this was the last chance to meet demands. On 7 March a new tape was aired and three days later, the body of Tom Fox, one of Mr Kember's colleagues, was found.
Mr Kember and the others were freed by multinational forces on 23 March.
The charity worker, 59, had worked in Iraq for 32 years since moving there with her Iraqi husband. She had learnt Arabic and become an Iraqi citizen.
Ms Hassan joined the humanitarian charity Care International when it became established in Iraq in 1991 and by 2004 she was director of the Irish aid organisation's Iraqi operations.
Kidnapped in Baghdad on 19 October 2004, Ms Hassan was shown in a video asking for the withdrawal of British troops. "Please help me," she said. "Please, the British people, ask Tony Blair to take the troops out of Iraq." She was killed four weeks after her capture.
Reports last June revealed Mustafa Salman was jailed for life over her capture and murder.
The 62-year-old civil engineer from Liverpool was kidnapped in the al-Mansour district of Baghdad on 16 September 2004, along with the US citizens Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong, all working for Gulf Supplies and Commercial Services.
Two days after their capture, the Tawhid and Jihad group led by the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi released a video of the three men kneeling in front of the group's banner. Their kidnappers said if Iraqi women prisoners held by coalition forces were not released, the men would be killed.
Despite the intervention of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, who sent a two-man delegation to Iraq to negotiate, Mr Bigley was beheaded on 7 October.