Kidnapped workers 'tortured and killed'

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The Independent Online

Some of the workers taken from an education department building in Baghdad by armed men wearing police uniforms were tortured and killed, an Iraqi minister said yesterday.

Abed Theyeb, the Minister for Higher Education, insisted that around 150 people, mostly Sunnis, were taken away, making it the largest mass kidnapping in the country since the US-led invasion, and many among the 70 who have since been freed had experienced abuse including broken limbs.

There had been confusion over the actual number of those abducted on Tuesday, with accounts varying from 50 to 150.

Mr Theyeb, a Sunni who had been extremely critical of the lack of security provided for the country's academics - around 160 have been killed since the war and hundreds of others have fled the country - declared he was stepping down and suspending co-operation with the Shia Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's office until the rest of the hostages were freed.

The Prime Minister's office maintained, however, that "only a handful" were still being held captive, and deniednegligence. But Mr Theyeb said: "Out of the 150 people taken away around 40 are still missing. We are very concerned for their well being. There are reports that some of them have been killed. Even a number of those who were freed were treated very badly, some of them had their legs and hands broken."

The overwhelmingly Shia members of the Interior Ministry forces have been repeatedly accused of carrying out sectarian attacks on the Sunni community. Up to seven police officers were arrested on suspicion of collusion with the abduction, following the raids in which some of the hostages were rescued.

Mr Theyeb called for a public inquiry. He said: "When they attacked they were wearing police uniforms. They were using police cars, some of them. We need to find out what happened, this is very important. I am stepping down until something is done actively to improve security, and there is not just talk."

Basil al-Khatib, a senior official at the Education Ministry, who is also a Sunni, added: "We have witness accounts from those who were released of killings and torture. I do not know how many, but I think there was a large number."

Meanwhile violence continued across the country with four American soldiers killed in separate attacks.

Gunmen opened fire in the mixed suburb of Zayouna in Baghdad killing and injuring a dozen people. Three others were killed in explosions in the capital.

American and Iraqi forces announced they had killed nine " al-Qa'ida-in-Iraq terrorists", including several wearing suicide vests, at a raid near Yussufiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad in the "triangle of death".

The organisation's alleged leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, claimed in a message posted on the internet that its forces were growing in strength, with 12,000 fighters in Iraq.

* A US Army soldier was sentenced to life in prison yesterday for conspiring to rape a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and kill her and her family. Specialist James P. Barker, one of four Fort Campbell soldiers accused in the 12 March rape and killings, pleaded guilty on Wednesday and agreed to testify against the others to avoid the death penalty.