- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2006

BAGHDAD — British soldiers backed by U.S. military helicopters battled insurgents near the Kuwaiti border yesterday, close to where a private security team of four Americans and an Austrian were kidnapped. A top police official said a criminal gang had snatched the men and demanded ransom.

Gunmen wearing police uniforms abducted the security team near Safwan, a largely Sunni Arab city of 200,000 people in southern Iraq. The attack began shortly after the Westerners had crossed the Kuwaiti border with a large convoy of supply trucks.

The convoy was traveling on the Iraq Military Road, which is infrequently used by civilian vehicles. Sunni insurgents attack supply convoys on a daily basis, not only on the roads from Kuwait but also from Turkey in the north and Jordan in the west.

Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi refused to give details of the ransom demand late yesterday after a series of confused and apparently incorrect reports that variously claimed the Austrian had been found dead and one of the Americans was gravely wounded. Another discounted report came from the Basra governor, who had said two Americans were freed and one hostage killed.

Gen. al-Moussawi said police believed the five employees of the Crescent Security Co. were being held in the Safwan region along with trucks from the convoy.

Throughout the day, U.S. officials and the British military, which still has about 7,000 troops in the Basra region, said they had no information on the kidnapped security men.

The confusion in reports from Iraqi officials apparently grew out of their having been unaware initially of a fresh incident yesterday involving a British security team that had been stopped by Iraqi customs police on the same road where the Crescent Security team was abducted.

Gen. Al-Moussawi said that as police checked the papers of the British security men in the lead vehicle, a car drove by at high speed and opened fire, killing one Briton and wounding a second in the car. British officials in Basra confirmed an incident involving security men but would provide no details.

British soldiers and U.S. military helicopters fought with gunmen in the area where the Crescent Security Group convoy was hijacked, and coalition forces searched for the hostages, according to an official for Crescent Security in Kuwait. He would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

British military spokesman Capt. Tane Dunlop said the British and U.S. assault targeted gunmen who had been attacking coalition forces in the past few days. He said the coalition force had been attacked by about 10 gunmen from farm buildings.

Neither Crescent Security nor the U.S. government has identified the missing Americans.

However, a State Department official informed the family of Paul Reuben, 39, a former suburban Minneapolis police officer who was working as a security contractor in Iraq, that he was among those captured, his brother, Patrick Reuben, told the Star Tribune newspaper and KSTP-TV in St. Paul, Minn.

Crescent Security Group works mostly in Iraq, and its operations are based in Kuwait. Many of its managers and employees are American.

The attack occurred in Dhi Qar Province, where Italy formally handed over security responsibility to Iraqi forces in late September.

At least 52 Iraqi deaths were reported nationwide yesterday. Fifteen were killed by gun or mortar fire and 37 bodies were found dumped with multiple gunshot wounds, many showing signs of torture. The U.S. military also reported the death of one soldier who was killed Thursday in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad.

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