Wednesday, July 21, 2004

BAGHDAD — Militants kidnapped six foreign truck drivers and threatened yesterday to behead them unless their company ends its business in Iraq and their countries — India, Egypt and Kenya — pull all their citizens out.

The threat came as militants launched a rocket attack on a Baghdad hospital, killing two persons, and set off a car bomb in the capital that killed four.

In the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, Marines engaged in an hours-long gun battle with insurgents; hospital officials said five Iraqis were killed, many when U.S. forces bombed a house. A roadside bomb north of Baghdad killed one U.S. 1st Infantry Division soldier early yesterday, pushing the death toll of U.S. forces in Iraq to 900 since the start of the war.

The threat to behead the hostages — and separate warnings against Bulgarian, Polish and Japanese troops — is the latest development in a violent campaign to scare off foreigners, who play a vital role in supporting the new U.S.-backed government and the reconstruction of Iraq.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had warned of a surge in threats and hostage-taking when the Philippines withdrew its 51-troop contingent from Iraq on Monday, giving in to the demands of militants holding a Filipino truck driver. The driver, Angelo dela Cruz, was released Tuesday.

A militant group calling itself the Holders of the Black Banners announced yesterday it had taken two Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian hostage, and said it would behead a captive every 72 hours beginning Saturday night if their countries do not announce their intentions to withdraw troops and citizens from Iraq.

None of those countries is part of the 160,000-member U.S.-led coalition. However, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appealed last week to India and Egypt to send troops.

“We have warned all the countries, companies, businessmen and truck drivers that those who deal with American cowboy occupiers will be targeted by the fires of the Mujahideen,” said a statement from the group. “Here you are once again transporting goods, weapons and military equipment that backs the U.S. Army.”

In a separate threat, a previously unknown group calling itself al Qaeda’s European branch posted a message on an Islamic Web site threatening deadly attacks in Bulgaria and Poland if the two countries do not withdraw their troops from Iraq.

The group, calling itself the Tawhid Islamic Group, said Bulgaria and Poland will “pay the price” just as the United States and Spain did, referring to the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and deadly train explosions in Madrid in March of this year.

During a recent hostage situation, Bulgaria refused demands to pull its 480 troops out of Iraq, and Polish Deputy Defense Minister Janusz Zemke said yesterday that withdrawing troops would be a “terrible mistake” that would only encourage terrorism.

Another militant group on Tuesday threatened Japan’s 500 troops here. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said yesterday that Tokyo would not comply.

The six foreigners threatened yesterday were truck drivers working for a Kuwaiti company, the militants said.

In photos, six of the hostages were shown standing behind three seated, masked gunmen. One of the hostages held a paper with the typed names of seven men — presumably six of them the hostages — their nationalities and other personal details. The paper was stamped July 20, and the words “Universal Services” were handwritten on top.

The names on the paper were Ibrahim Khamis, Salm Faiz Khamis, Jalal Awadh, all from Kenya; Antaryami, Tilak Raj, Sukdev Singh, all from India; and Mohammed Ali Sanad, from Egypt.

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