Suicide bomber kills 17 in northern Iraq

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The Independent Online

A suicide bomber blew up his vehicle outside a police academy in the northern oil city of Kirkuk yesterday, killing 17 people, including 14 policemen. A further 36 people were injured by the blast.

A suicide bomber blew up his vehicle outside a police academy in the northern oil city of Kirkuk yesterday, killing 17 people, including 14 policemen. A further 36 people were injured by the blast.

Police stations have been the favourite target of suicide bombers all over Iraq since the suicide bombing campaign started just over a year ago. The organisers of the attacks have never been short of volunteers willing to blow themselves up.

In a gory twist, the authorities disclosed that they had discovered the head of the bomber, who had a long beard, 150 yards from the police building.

As peace returns to Najaf after three weeks of fighting which ended last weekend, there has been an increase in violence in the north. In and around Tal Afar, a notorious base for insurgents, some 13 people were killed and 52 wounded yesterday when US and Iraqi government forces launched an operation to eliminate guerrillas.

A videotape aired on an Arabic television station yesterday showed Iraqi militants threatening to behead a Turkish truck driver unless his employers stop operations in Iraq within 48 hours.

There is still no sign of the French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were kidnapped on 20 August by the so-called Islamic Army of Iraq. But the French government remained confident yesterday that they were safe and that their release was only a question of time. Despite the disappointment of confident predictions that they would be freed on the Islamic holy day on Friday, French officials and Muslim leaders said that the handover was being delayed mostly by "security issues" in Iraq.

In other words, the group holding the two journalists and their Syrian driver want to be sure that a hostage release would not expose them to attack by rival militants or the Iraqi authorities.

"All the indications that we have strengthen hope for their imminent release," Dominique de Villepin, the French Interior Minister, said yesterday. He was speaking after welcoming home a delegation of French Muslim leaders who flew to Baghdad last week to plead for the freedom of Mr Malbrunot, 41, of Le Figaro, and Mr Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale.

A member of the delegation, Fouad Alaoui of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France, said: "We have great confidence that the outcome will be positive. We would have liked to bring the hostages back with us but the important thing is that we should see them in the near future."

Another member of the delegation, Mohammed Bechari, said that the release now depended on "questions of logistics and the climate that reigns - a climate of insecurity". "There are bombardments everywhere, in Fallujah [where the hostages are believed to be held], and on the roads between Baghdad and Amman and Baghdad and Damascus," he said. "So it depends now on political questions and the issue of insecurity. There are lots of forces, lots of militias, lots of interests opposed to each other in Iraq."

It has also become clear that France has angered the interim Iraqi administration by enlisting the aid of Wahhabi clerics close to the Sunni opposition movements in Iraq to try to negotiate with the hostage-takers. The administration has also been disturbed by the presence in Baghdad of members of French special forces and the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE), broadly equivalent to Britain's MI6.

On Friday, there were reports that the hostages had been handed over to an intermediary group of Iraqi militants, accompanied by French agents. But French officials have since refused to confirm these reports.

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