Egyptian envoy seized as militants raise stakes

BAGHDAD, Reuters

Egypt was trying to secure the release of a senior diplomat on Saturday after he was seized in a brazen kidnapping while leaving a Baghdad mosque — the first envoy to be taken hostage in a growing wave of abductions.

“We are involved in intense talks to try to secure his release,” a source at the Egyptian embassy in Baghdad told Reuters, referring to Mohamed Mamdouh Qutb, the number three in the mission, who was abducted after prayers on Friday afternoon.

“We were so shocked. He’s a very decent and religious man.”

The kidnapping of a well-protected diplomat outside a busy place of worship is a step up in sophistication for militants and sharply raises the stakes in Iraq’s weeks-long series of abductions, which have mostly involved foreign truck drivers.

On Saturday, the head of Iraq’s al-Mansour Construction Company, a state-owned firm, was kidnapped as he drove to work in Baghdad. As well as a businessman, Raad Adnan Mahmoud is also director-general of Iraq’s Housing and Construction Ministry. Mahmoud’s kidnappers have not made any demands so far.

And in another hostage standoff, a group which has threatened to behead seven foreign captives issued a new 48-hour deadline to the Kuwaiti company that employs them, demanding Iraqi prisoners be freed from Kuwaiti and U.S. jails — a demand that is impossible for the company to meet.

Al Jazeera TV on Friday broadcast pictures of Egyptian diplomat Qutb sitting in front of six hooded and armed men from a group calling itself the “Lions of God Battalions in Iraq”. “The group said the abduction was in response to comments by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif that Cairo was ready to offer its security experience to the temporary Iraqi government,” the Arabic satellite station said.

Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi visited Cairo this week and discussed the possibility of using Egyptian troops in training Iraq’s forces. But no deal was struck and Egyptian officials were quick to emphasize that. Allawi urged Egypt on Saturday not to pander to the kidnappers.

“The only way to deal with terrorists is to bring them to justice and to close ranks and we hope that Egypt and the Egyptian government would act accordingly,” he said.

Qutb’s abduction came four days after he was widely photographed celebrating the release of an Egyptian truck driver kidnapped by insurgents earlier this month. The driver was freed after his Saudi Arabian employer promised to pull out of Iraq.

Militants have seized dozens of foreign workers since April to push demands for foreign troops or foreign companies to leave Iraq. Several hostages have been killed and in at least two cases the hostage-takers’ demands have been met.

Kidnappings have been common since the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, but in the early months they appeared mostly to be criminally motivated, with many doctors and businessmen seized and ransom payments demanded.

Since April, however, insurgents — both foreign fighters and Iraqi nationalist guerrillas — have got in on the game, attacking convoys of vehicles and seizing drivers. Some officials have suggested criminals and militants are working together, sometimes trading hostages among themselves.

Earlier this week, three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian, all drivers working for a Kuwaiti firm, were seized.

The Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company said it would not stop operating in Iraq as the kidnappers were demanding.

Then on Friday, Al Jazeera showed a video of a masked man from the Black Banners group reading a statement in front of the hostages in which they demanded the company pay compensation to the hundreds of Iraqis killed in fighting in Falluja, and said Iraqi prisoners in American and Kuwaiti jails should be freed.

India’s Foreign Minister Natwar Singh said on Saturday he was optimistic the Indians would be freed and said their captors were simply criminals interested in extorting money.