Kidnapping of Americans Linked to al Sadr

ByLuis Martinez

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2006 — -- A senior Defense Department official told ABC News that Shiite militiamen tied to anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr were behind the abduction of four American security contractors and an Austrian co-worker seized in a brazen attack on a supply convoy near the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

The search for the missing contractors resulted in a raid by coalition forces earlier today near the Kuwait border that resulted in the deaths of two Iraqi gunmen, but no hostages were found.

Throughout the day, statements from Iraqi officials -- later discounted -- led to reports that some of the hostages had been released or found dead. However, their employer, Crescent Security Group, said there had been no claim of responsibility, no demand for ransom and no communication of any kind from the hijackers.

Despite the confusion, new details emerged about the incident Thursday that took place 20 kilometers north of the Iraqi city of Safwan, located near the border with Kuwait.

A senior defense official said it was believed that the gunmen who ambushed the convoy were wearing newly issued Iraqi police uniforms that are supposed to be tightly controlled, hard to duplicate and were issued only last month.

Only a month ago, the coalition began distributing the digitally altered blue camouflage uniforms to National Police Brigades. The uniforms are also tied to the mass kidnapping earlier this week in Baghdad at the Education Ministry.

Last month, Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who oversees the trainers assigned to Iraqi police units, said the new uniforms would help prevent rogue activity by Iraqi policemen in support of sectarian militias.

"By ensuring that we have distinctive uniforms and distinctive markings of vehicles we can identify any rogue policemen that may be in fact supporting illegal activities out there," Peterson said.

The ambushed convoy was made up of 43 trailer trucks and six security vehicles operated by the Crescent Security Group, a Kuwait-based private security firm. The trucks were empty as they traveled north to an Italian base near Nasiriyah, where they were to pick up materials to be returned to Kuwait.

A spokesman for Crescent Security Group, who did not wish to be identified, said the convoy stopped at a checkpoint set up along the main highway north from Kuwait, which the military refers to as MSR Tampa. This spokesman said security checkpoints are routinely found along the highway at fairly standard locations with temporary checkpoints established elsewhere along the route.

Witnesses have told company officials the convoy stopped because the checkpoint was manned by people dressed in Iraqi military uniforms.

The men were not Iraqi military, however. They were gunmen who made off with 19 of the trailers and 14 hostages. The gunmen subsequently released nine of the hostages who were predominantly from Asian countries but held on to their Western captives.

The Crescent Security spokesman said two of their Western employees and an unknown number of Iraqi guards were not taken by the gunmen but had their cell phones taken. They were found by a military quick reaction force that arrived on the scene shortly after the ambush.

Military officials said some of the vehicles had been recovered.

The Crescent Security spokesman said two of their Western employees and an unknown number of Iraqi guards were not taken by the gunmen but had their cell phones taken. They were found by a military quick reaction force that arrived on the scene shortly after the ambush.

The Crescent spokesman said the employees are now back in Kuwait.

The spokesman refused to discuss if any of the employees had been injured but said there were no indications that a gun battle took place.

U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad confirmed that earlier today a "strike operation" was conducted by coalition forces in the Safwan area of Basra Province, where the hijacking took place.

The forces were fired upon by a number of gunmen in buildings as they approached the area. The forces returned fire in self-defense, killing two of the gunmen in the buildings, the military said. There were no coalition casualties.

A Defense official confirms that an American Quick Reaction Force and air assets had been sent to southern Iraq to assist in the search for the missing Americans.

U.S. military officials and Crescent Security confirm an unrelated fatal incident involving private security contractors Friday that occurred along the Kuwait border, which added to the day's confusion.

A shootout between Iraqi border officials and five British security contractors left one of the contractors dead, another wounded and three detained. It's unclear what sparked the hostile fire.

A Crescent Security spokesman said the contractors in this incident are employed by another unidentified private security firm and have no connection to Crescent. Security Group.

A top Iraqi police official in Basra told The Associated Press that claims by the provincial governor announcing the release of two of the hostages had confused the two separate incidents in the same area involving private security forces.

Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi said he believes this confusion led to previous speculation that some of the hostages had been freed.

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