Four Christian peace activists held hostage in Iraq were kidnapped at the same place where an Italian journalist was abducted, raising the possibility one group carried out both attacks, police said Thursday.
The style of the abduction also was similar: The activists were seized Saturday in the vicinity of a mosque near Baghdad University. A car blocked their car, gunmen got out, threw the driver and translator out and drove away with the four captives, security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
Giuliana Sgrena, a reporter for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto, was seized Feb. 4 and held for a month by a group calling itself Mujahedeen Without Borders. That previously unknown group has not been heard from since, but may now be using a different name.
The four activists for the Chicago-based Christian Peacemaker Teams were being held by a group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade — another unfamiliar name. The group claimed that its hostages, shown sitting quietly in a video, were spies working under the cover of Christian peace activists.
While in captivity, Sgrena also appeared in a video. She begged for her life and warned foreigners to leave the country.
Iraqi police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said Thursday that the activists were kidnapped in the same place as Sgrena, whose release on March 4 touched off a tragic friendly fire incident that strained relations between Italy and the United States.
Nicola Calipari, an Italian intelligence agent, was killed by U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint as he was escorting Sgrena to Baghdad's airport.
Whether or not the same group was holding the Christians, militants in Iraq are resorting again to a tactic they have not used for months: a succession of abductions targeting Westerners. Insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have seized more than 225 people, killing at least 38.
The latest victims — five Westerners and four Iranians kidnapped in the past week — may have been targets of opportunity, or victims of ransom seekers or lax security. Either way, the abductions give militants the publicity they seek to show they are a force to be reckoned with.
"The media card is crucial in any international conflict, and these groups are seeking to reaffirm their existence through such kidnappings," said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic militancy.
The new abductions of Westerners comes after a monthslong hiatus. The gruesome killings of past hostages have brought criticism from many Arabs. Influential Egyptian cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa saying that since Iraq remains in a state of war, the kidnapping of those involved in the war is allowed but hostages should not be killed.
That view is reportedly shared by the second-in-command of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri. The Pentagon said in October that the military in Iraq had intercepted a letter from al-Zawahri to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, urging him to avoid bombing mosques and slaughtering hostages to avoid alienating the public.
In the latest known kidnapping, six Iranians were grabbed Nov. 29 in Balad, north of Baghdad. Iranian state TV said a day later that two Iranian women had been freed; four men apparently remain captive.
The abduction of the Iranians came four days after the disappearance of German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, 43. On a video made public Nov. 29, kidnappers threatened to kill her unless Germany stops dealing with the Iraqi government. Osthoff, who speaks Arabic, had helped distribute aid in Iraq.
In a message shown Thursday on Germany's ZDF television, Osthoff's sister and mother pleaded with the kidnappers to consider that their captive was a Muslim convert with a young daughter as well as a friend of Iraq.
"My sister has lived in your country for a long time and has committed herself to Iraq. Susanne has brought medicine to ill people. She loves the great Iraqi culture. She wanted to preserve the treasures of Iraq for the Iraqi people," Anja Osthoff said.
The Christian activists — Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; Norman Kember, 74, of London; James Loney, 41, of Toronto; and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, of Canada — had been repeatedly warned by Iraqi and Western security officials that they were taking a grave risk by moving about Baghdad without bodyguards.
Osthoff also traveled without security guards, and the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel reported Thursday that she had told Iraqi authorities about her travel plans and that someone in the security services may have tipped off kidnappers.
Some security experts believe the surge of kidnappings may be a result of lax security, attempts by the insurgents to mix up tactics in an intense period of car bombings and suicide attacks — or a desire to disrupt next month's elections.
The recent spate may also be pure coincidence, some analysts say.
"It depends on the availability of victims for kidnapping," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp. in Washington.
Rashwan said there "may not be any kind of rationalization or strategy to what the insurgents are doing."
"It could be that they did not have enough ... human resources in the past few months, or that kidnapping was not a top priority," Rashwan said.