Sunday, November 19, 2006

Iraq's deputy health minister kidnapped from home

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- At least 24 gunmen -- some dressed as national police -- stormed the house of Iraq's deputy health minister, Ammar al-Saffar, on Sunday and abducted him, a Baghdad emergency police official told CNN.

The kidnapping came as U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces continued searching for five Western security contractors seized in southern Iraq Thursday, as well as hostages taken in a mass kidnapping at a Baghdad research institute earlier last week.

The kidnapping of al-Saffar happened about 5:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, the official said.

Al-Saffar, a Shiite Muslim, is a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.

In June 2004, gunmen opened fire on al-Saffar as he left home for work. He escaped unharmed.
Also Sunday, Syria's foreign minister arrived in Baghdad to meet with the Iraqi leadership, including al-Maliki, according to The Associated Press.

"We believe that that a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq will help in reducing violence and preserving security," Walid Moallem said Sunday, appearing with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, AP said.

Moallem's visit is a major step toward restoring diplomatic relations severed more than a quarter-century ago, and comes at a time when Syria is increasingly seen as key to helping stem the insurgency in Iraq, AP reported.

Lying suicide bomber kills 17 day laborers

Meanwhile, 17 Iraqi day laborers were killed and 49 others wounded by a suicide bomber south of the capital Sunday morning, Hilla police said.

The suicide bomber pretended to offer work to the laborers, then set off the blast after they gathered around his car. Hilla is about 60 miles (100 km) south of Baghdad.

"The ground was covered with the remains of people and blood, and survivors ran in all directions," Muhsin Hadi Alwan, one of the wounded laborers, told AP.

"How will I feed the six members of my family when I return home without work and without money?" Alwan said.

In southeastern Baghdad, three car bombs exploded in a bus station, killing at least 10 people and wounding 45 more Sunday morning, Baghdad police said.

The bus station was in Baghdad's Mashtal neighborhood.
Search goes on for hostages
The family of one of the missing American contractors released his name and photo to CNN late Saturday, but said they didn't want to make a public statement except to say they hope he is released.

Jonathan Cote, 23, of Getzville, New York, is the second of the kidnapped contractors identified.
On Friday, the name of another contractor was released. He is Paul Reuben, a former police officer from the suburban Minneapolis town of St. Louis Park. (Full story)

The Austrian is a 25-year-old former soldier, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said.

The missing are employees of Crescent Security Corp., which operates out of Kuwait. (Watch why private military contractors view their job as something worth dying for -- 7:26)
An Iranian-run Arabic-language satellite news station, al-Alam, aired a video Saturday the station said was from a group claiming to have abducted the five at a fake checkpoint.
The video showed a man wearing a white head scarf wrapped around his face but no evidence of the abductees or that his group, Islamic Mujahedeen Battalion, had them.

During al-Alam's broadcast, the man's voice was inaudible, and the station's presenter said the video was from the group that claimed to have kidnapped the contractors and killed four other Americans.

CNN is unable to independently verify the authenticity of the video.

Security sources in the southern Iraqi city of Basra said little is known about the Islamic Mujahedeen Battalion, a Shiite group that surfaced about six months ago and has threatened to attack security companies passing through southern Iraq from Kuwait.

The contractors were abducted after crossing Iraq's southern border from Kuwait on Thursday. (Watch what is known about the hostage-taking -- 1:41

Gunmen masquerading as Iraqi police used a bogus checkpoint to ambush the contractors, who were traveling in a convoy Thursday. Fourteen people were taken and nine truck drivers were later released. (More details)

Gunmen posing as Iraqi police also were behind the mass kidnapping at the Baghdad research institute Tuesday.

It is still not known exactly how many people were kidnapped from the Ministry of Higher Education building. Iraq's higher education minister, Abed Dhiyab al-Ajili, said about 70 had been freed by Wednesday night, and another 40 were still missing.

CNN's Ingrid Formanek, Erin McLaughlin and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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