BAGHDAD, Iraq – Masked gunmen grabbed a French engineer off the streets of Baghdad on Monday, the latest in a spate of kidnappings of Westerners that coincides with Saddam Hussein’s trial and the run-up to parliamentary elections.
Bernard Planche joined two Canadians, an American, a Briton and a German taken hostage in the past 10 days.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw encouraged the Briton’s kidnappers to make contact, saying “we stand ready to hear what they have to say.”
The British Broadcasting Corp. cited a Western diplomat in Baghdad as saying direct contact had been made with the hostage-takers. It did not name the diplomat.
Straw, however, underlined the British government’s refusal to negotiate with kidnappers or pay ransom.
There is no evidence the kidnappings were coordinated, and those responsible for abducting the German aid worker and four Christian peace activists claim to represent different groups. But the incidents may be timed to Saddam’s trial or the Dec. 15 elections.
Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, said he thinks the sudden increase in abductions is not an accident.
“There is some sort of policy to go back to kidnappings,” he said. “The elections are coming, and these groups want attention and publicity. That way their political statement will get a priority in the Western media.”
The first in the wave of kidnappings came Nov. 25 when Susanne Osthoff, 43, and her Iraqi driver went missing near Mosul. German media have reported that a group calling itself the Brigades of the Earthquake demanded the German government suspend its cooperation with the Iraqi government.
The next day, gunmen in Baghdad abducted four members of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape and statement in which the kidnappers, who called themselves the Swords of Righteousness Brigade, threatened to kill the hostages unless all prisoners in U.S. and Iraqi detention centers were freed by Dec. 8.
The Christian activists – Norman Kember, 74, of London; Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va.; James Loney, 41, of Toronto; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, also of Canada – had been warned by security officials they were taking a grave risk by moving about Baghdad without bodyguards.
French officials had also warned Planche, who was abducted from outside his home in the Mansour district of the capital, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said.
The kidnappers used three cars to surrounded Planche and take him away, police Capt. Qassim Hussein said. Planche is the head of mission for a group that works on U.S.-financed water projects.
Diplomats have said they are in close contact with Iraqi authorities to secure the hostages’ release.
Anas Altikriti, a member of the British anti-war movement, met leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party and conservative Sunni clerics who have called for the peace activists’ release. He told journalists Monday he had no direct contact with the kidnappers.
During a visit to Dubai, Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said Monday the effort to train Iraqi security forces has suffered a big “setback” in the past six months, with the army and other forces being increasingly used to settle scores and make political gains.
In western Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an operation Monday in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, part of a continued effort “to neutralize the insurgency and set the conditions for a successful Dec. 15 election,” a U.S. statement said.
At least one Bradley fighting vehicle was destroyed in Ramadi when it was hit by a roadside bomb, but there were no injuries, Iraqi police Lt. Mohammed Al-Ubaidi said.
Also Monday, a U.S. statement said a soldier assigned to Task Force Baghdad was killed when a patrol hit a roadside bomb Sunday. No other details were made public.
At least 2,128 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count.
In Baghdad, gunmen ambushed an Iraqi army patrol, killing five soldiers, police Capt. Talib Thamir said.