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Wave of abductions plagues Iraq; troops killed

A missing German woman in Iraq is believed to have been kidnapped,  the German chancellor said Tuesday. Iranian pilgrims also seized.
This still from video footage, released by German TV broadcaster ARD on Tuesday, purportedly shows kidnapped German woman Susanne Osthoff, third from left, and her driver, second from right.
This still from video footage, released by German TV broadcaster ARD on Tuesday, purportedly shows kidnapped German woman Susanne Osthoff, third from left, and her driver, second from right.ARD via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Photos broadcast Tuesday showed a blindfolded German woman being led away by armed captors in the latest kidnapping of a Westerner in Iraq. Six Iranian pilgrims, meanwhile, were abducted by gunmen north of Baghdad.

Separately, the aid group Christian Peacemaker Teams confirmed that four people from the group had been taken hostage Saturday and that Norman Kember, a 74-year-old Briton, was among them. The U.S. Embassy has confirmed an American is missing in Iraq — presumably one of the aid workers.

Also Tuesday, two U.S. soldiers assigned to Task Force Baghdad were killed when their patrol was hit by a roadside bomb north of the capital, the U.S. command said. In addition, a suicide car bomber killed eight Iraqi soldiers and wounded five others when he drove into an army patrol Tuesday in Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, police Lt. Ali Hussein said.

Iraq was rocked by a wave of foreigner kidnappings and beheadings in 2004 and early 2005, but they have dropped off in recent months as many Western groups have left and security precautions for those who remain have tightened. Insurgents, including the al-Qaida in Iraq group, seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38 — including three Americans.

The pictures of Susanne Osthoff were taken from a video in which her captors demanded that Germany stop any dealings with Iraq’s government, according to Germany’s ARD television. Germany has ruled out sending troops to Iraq and opposed the U.S.-led war.

Osthoff and her driver have been missing since Friday and “according to current information, we have to assume it is a kidnapping,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin.

Broken family ties
Osthoff’s mother, Ingrid Hala, told Germany N24 news station that her daughter is an archaeologist working for a German aid organization that has distributed medicine and medical supplies since before the 2003 U.S. invasion. ARD said she speaks fluent Arabic.

“One can only hope and keep their fingers crossed and remain optimistic,” Hala said.

Hala said she had not heard from her daughter for about five years, and her uncle, Peter Osthoff, said his niece had broken almost all ties with her family, including a daughter who will be 12 in December.

“She has almost no contact with any relatives,” he told The Associated Press.

Osthoff, who converted to Islam, lived in Yemen for several years before she took part in excavations in Iraq in 1984. Her husband is an Iraqi citizen and the two, who are now separated, have a daughter, NBC News reported.

Christian Peacemaker Teams said it has had representatives in Iraq since October 2002, working with U.S. and Iraqi detainees and training others in nonviolent intervention and human rights documentation. Kember and another person were part of a visiting delegation, while two of the group’s staff based in Iraq also were taken, the statement said.

The group said it would not identify the other three people taken hostage. It stressed that it worked on behalf of Iraqi civilians.

“The team’s work has focused on documenting and focusing public attention on detainee abuses, connecting citizens of Iraq to local and international human rights organizations, and accompanying Iraqi civilians as they interact with multinational military personnel and Iraq’s government officials,” the group said.

No leads on kidnappers
The statement said those taken hostage knew the risks when they went to Iraq.

The organization said it “does not advocate the use of violent force to save our lives should we be kidnapped, held hostage, or caught in the middle of a conflict situation.”

On Monday, Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal said authorities had no leads. No group has claimed responsibility and details of the apparent kidnapping were unclear.

On Sunday, a Canadian official said two Canadians were in the group. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton said only that an American had been reported missing, and the person’s name and organization were being withheld.

Britain has said Kember, a retired professor, vanished in Iraq.

Kember is a longtime peace activist who once fretted publicly that he was taking the easy way out by protesting in safety at home while British soldiers risked their lives in Iraq.

In Barcelona, Spain, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he had contacted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hohshyar Zebari about Kember’s abduction, and that Zebari “pledged every assistance from the Iraqi government.”

Iranian pilgrims captured
The Iranian pilgrims were abducted Tuesday morning near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, police Maj. Falah Mohammedawi said, but it was not clear if the six were going to or coming from Samarra, a central city that houses a shrine to two Shiite saints.

Iraq and Iran, predominantly Shiite countries, reached an agreement earlier this year on pilgrim visits, which excludes trips to Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Samarra because of the dangerous security situation. The pilgrims appear to have been violating that agreement.

Insurgents have kidnapped aid workers, journalists and contractors in an attempt to drive foreigners out of the country or to win large ransoms.

Since May, abductions have fallen off considerably, mainly because many Western groups left Iraq and security precautions for those remaining have been tightened, with foreigners staying in barricaded compounds and moving only in heavily guarded convoys.

The last American to be kidnapped was Jeffrey Ake, a contract worker from LaPorte, Ind., who was abducted April 11. He was seen in a video aired days afterward, held with a gun to his head, but there has been no word on his fate.