Kidnappers seize Italian journalist in centre of Baghdad

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Kidnappers seized an Italian journalist in the centre of Baghdad yesterdayafter they were apparently tipped off by refugees from Fallujah whom shewas interviewing.

Kidnappers seized an Italian journalist in the centre of Baghdad yesterdayafter they were apparently tipped off by refugees from Fallujah whom shewas interviewing.

Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist from il Manifesto newspaper, was taken justbefore 2pm by gunmen who opened fire as they kidnapped her. Her seizure islikely to produce a wave of sympathy similar to that expressed for twoItalian women aid workers taken away last September and later released.

Ms Sgrena had gone to a camp of refugees whose tents are around a skyblue mosque looking like an upended bowl close to the Tigris river in thegrounds of al-Nahrain University. She interviewed the refugees and thenwent on to mosque where there were Friday prayers.

She was originally going to be accompanied by Barbara Schiavulli, anItalian radio journalist. Ms Schiavulli received a call on Ms Sgrena'smobile as the kidnapping was going on. She said: "I couldn't hear anybodytalking...I heard people shooting" and the sound of people splashingthrough the rain." Possibly Ms Sgrena was trying to run away throughpuddles from the overnight rain.

The ambush had been well prepared. To reach the mosque a car has to firstpass by the security guards protecting Baghdad University and then drivehalf a mile. The refugees encampment is close to a second university calledal-Nahrain. Later Ms Sgrena's translator said: "Giuiana's been kidnapped."He said he was being detained for questioning by the Americans.

The kidnappers were waiting for her when she left the mosque thetranslator said. A security guard at the university added: "When she wasgetting out of the door, a black car blocked her way. There were pistolsand they opened fire at the journalist and those with her."

The university security guards fired back but Ms Sgrena was dragged intothe car. An Italian diplomat later said that eight gunmen were involved.

The kidnappers was almost certainly staged to demand a ransom and notfor political motives, Baghdad has one of the most highly developed kidnapindustries in the world. For the first year after the invasion thekidnappers concentrated on seizing Iraqis, mostly businessmen orprofessional people, and holding them for ransom. Some hospital departmentsin the capital became short handed because so many doctors had fled toJordan or Syria.

Early last year the kidnappers discovered that they could make much moremoney kidnapping foreigners. According to Dr Sabah Khadm, the spokesman ofthe Interior Ministry, exaggerated stories spread in Baghdad's criminalunxerworld that a Kuwaiti company had paid $100,000 a head for tenemployees to be released.

Political demands are also often made by kidnappers to mask the fact thatthe aim is solely to extort money. The Italian aid workers Simona Pari andSimona Torretta were seized from their office in Baghdad on 7 September andreleased amid widespread speculation that the government of prime ministerSilvio Berlusconi had paid the kidnappers $5 million.

The French journalist Florence Aubenas who works for the Frenchnewspaper Liberation disappeared almost exactly a month ago on 5 January.The exact circumstances of her kidnapping are not clear but according toone report she also was interviewing refugees from Fallujah when she wasseized.

The kidnapping of journalists has depleted the Baghdad press corps anddriven most to only travelling out of Baghdad - and sometimes within it -when embedded with US troops. Journalists are more in danger because mostother foreigners in Iraq have fled or taken refuge in the Green Zone orother fortified military installations. The pool of potential kidnapvictims is much diminished leaving those still in it in greater danger.

The refugees encamped beside the blue mosque at al-Nahrain University hadstruck me as dangerous when I went to visit them in November. So much so,indeed, that The Independent Iraq translator went ahead to talk to them tosee if it was safe for a foreigner to enter their camp.

The Imam at the mosque was at first friendly but later volunteered thathe had read that Margaret Hassan, the murdered Irish aid worker, had been"a spy in Iraq for thirty years." The refugees were receiving food andkerosene from sympathisers in Baghdad.

Just as I was going to go into the camp two American Humvees arrived andeight soldiers got out. They said they were looking for a man whom theynamed. The Imam disappeared from his office presumably thinking he was indanger of arrest. The US soldiers then drove away. It seemed a bad momentto enter the camp since the refugees might think that my arrival wassomehow linked with the presence of the US patrol. We drove hurriedly away.