BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. forces captured two senior figures in al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, the U.S. military said Saturday, and one of Turkey’s richest businessmen was reported kidnapped, appearing in a video along with a weeping employee saying they were being held hostage.
In Baghdad, police uncovered more bodies under the rubble after a suicide bomber blew up a gas tanker in an upscale Baghdad district. Officials now believe at least nine people died in the Friday night attack, although reports of the death toll have varied.
The video of the two Turkish hostages was the first report of a kidnapping of foreigners in Iraq in weeks – and it appeared the abduction netted one of the most high-profile victims yet.
Kahraman Sadikoglu is president of the Istanbul-based Tuzla Shipyard and is famed in Turkey for having renovated and saved from ruin the Savarona, one of the world’s largest yachts, once used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.
Sadikoglu appeared in the video, aired on Turkish television, alongside Ahmet Yurtdas, captain of one of his ships. No kidnappers appeared in the footage or issued any statement claiming responsibility and no demands were made. The video’s authenticity could not be confirmed.
“Today is Dec. 23. We were captured four or five days ago,” Sadikoglu said. “We’re fine and they will check us out, what we’re doing here, and will hopefully release us. God is great.”
Sadikoglu said he was working for the United Nations and the Iraqi government on a project clearing harbors of sunken ships.
“We don’t have any problems with the Iraqi government. We’re creating jobs and food for the Iraqis,” he said. “If that is a crime too, then we will accept the punishment.”
The two men had not been heard from since they left the southern Iraqi city of Basra by land on Dec. 16, according to their families.
Several Turkish newspapers said a ransom demand of $25 million had been made, but Foreign Ministry officials and family members of the hostages refused to confirm the reports.
More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq this year, and at least 34 of them – including seven Turks – have been killed by their captors. Besides the two Turks in Saturday’s video, at least four for-eigners are known to still be held, three of them Americans.
The U.S. Marines said Saturday they captured two men who led cells in Anbar province for Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq network. The province is a center for the insurgency and home to the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
A Marine Corps statement identified the men as Saleh Arugayan Kahlil and Bassim Mohammad Hazeem. Their cells kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi National Guardsmen, carried out car bombings and other attacks in the Ramadi area and “smuggled foreign terrorists into the country,” the Marines said.
“This group is responsible for intimidating, attacking and murdering innocent Iraqi civilians, Iraqi police and security forces, and business and political leaders throughout the Unbar province,” the statement said.
Al-Zarqawi’s group, once known as Tawhid and Jihad, recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. It has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks against U.S. troops and government forces.
Violence has persisted across Iraq despite the U.S. military’s offensives last month aimed at putting down insurgents in several hotspots – including their stronghold Fallujah, which U.S. forces captured.
Friday night, a suicide bomber detonated a butane gas truck in the upscale Mansour district near the Libyan and Moroccan embassies, hours after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld left the capital, ending a one-day visit to speak to U.S. troops.