BAGHDAD – U.S. authorities in Baghdad have received five severed fingers belonging to four Americans and an Austrian who were taken hostage more than a year ago in Iraq, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
The FBI is investigating the grisly development, and the families of the five kidnapped contractors have been notified, American officials said on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the case publicly.
Authorities confirmed that the fingers belonged to hostages Jonathon Cote, of Gainesville, Fla.; Joshua Munns, of Redding, Calif.; Paul Johnson Reuben, of Buffalo, Minn.; Bert Nussbaumer, of Vienna, Austria; and Ronald J. Withrow, an American who was kidnapped separately from the others.
No information was available on when or how the fingers were delivered to U.S. authorities. Some relatives of the missing men said that they’d heard weeks ago that the DNA of the hostages had been obtained, but they’d been given no details.
U.S. authorities have been unable to determine whether the fingers were removed from corpses or while the men were alive, according to the sources. The fingers were partially decomposed at the time they were obtained.
“There’s no way to accurately depict at this point whether it was prior to or after; scientifically I don’t think they’ve been able to determine that,” said a source familiar with the investigation.
The first four men were security contractors with Kuwait-based Crescent Security and were captured in a brazen ambush of their 43-truck supply convoy in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, near the Kuwaiti border, on Nov. 16, 2006.
There was no word on a fifth contractor who was seized with them, John Young, of Kansas City.
Withrow, a computer specialist who worked for JPI Worldwide, was kidnapped separately at a phony checkpoint near the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Jan. 5, 2007, according to news reports. Very little information is publicly available about his abduction; the bodies of his Iraqi translator and driver were discovered the next day. His employer is a Las Vegas-based company that provides Internet and technological support to remote or war-torn areas around the globe, according to the company’s Web site.
The Austrian weekly magazine News first reported the delivery of the five fingers in Wednesday’s edition, citing unnamed authorities working on the case.
The Crescent contractors appeared in two hostage videos released in December 2006 and January 2007 in which they pleaded for the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq and to free all Iraqi prisoners. In the videos, they appeared in good condition and said that they were being treated well.
No financial demand has been made public. All of the hostages were seized in southern Iraq, where powerful Shiite Muslim militias operate with relative freedom.