BAGHDAD, Iraq – An Iraqi provincial governor said Friday that police located and freed two of five foreign security contractors taken hostage in a convoy hijacking near the Kuwait border, but a senior police official disputed that claim.
"Police were able to free two of the foreigners kidnapped and they are in good health," Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili said in a telephone interview, adding that he thought they were American.
Al-Waili also said one of the five was found dead near where the abductions took place outside the southern city of Safwan, but did not provide the victim's nationality.
But Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi later said none of the kidnapped security company employees had been freed and claimed the governor had confused separate incidents in the region involving private security forces.
Al-Moussawi said the five kidnap victims — four Americans and an Austrian — were still in the hands of a criminal gang that had demanded a ransom.
Al-Moussawi said the governor's confusion arose out of a separate incident on Friday in which a member of a private security team leading a convoy was killed.
He said in that incident, police were checking the papers of British security men in the lead vehicle when a car drove by at high speed and opened fire, killing one Briton and injuring a second in the car. Al-Moussawi said the governor apparently was not aware of that incident and had assumed the dead and injured were from the group of five kidnapped the day before.
It was impossible to confirm either report, and American officials in Baghdad said they had no information on the hostages being released.
Officials have said that five contractors with Crescent Security Group were abducted in a convoy hijacking Thursday. An Iraqi police officer said earlier the Austrian was found dead and one of the Americans was found gravely wounded, but the report could not be confirmed.
Al-Waili said that the two freed employees were found in an area called Dawajin close to the border with Kuwait, where the convoy was hijacked.
Shortly after the Crescent convoy was hijacked while driving through Safwan on a highway that connects Kuwait and southern Iraq, nine other employees of the company from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines were released by the captors, the company said.
At dawn Friday, British ground forces and U.S. helicopters searched the Safwan area for gunmen who had attacked coalition forces in the past few days when about 10 of them opened fire from farm buildings.
The British and U.S. forces returned fire, killing at least two gunmen, Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, said in a telephone interview from Basra.
In London, a spokeswoman at Britain's Ministry of Defense said, "We were looking to arrest individuals involved in terrorist activities." She said the raid was unrelated to the hostage seizure.
As violence in Iraq continued to spiral out of control, a crisis was brewing for Iraq's Shiite-led government.
The influential Association of Muslim Scholars called on Sunni politicians to quit Iraq's government and parliament, angered by the government's decision to issue an arrest warrant for the association's leader, Harith al-Dhari.
Abdul-Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the association, said the arrest warrant was political cover for "the acts of the government's security agencies that kill dozens of Iraqis every day."
Al-Kubaisi called for "political groups to withdraw from parliament and the government, which has proven that it is not a national government."
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called for the government to cancel the warrant, saying "it is destructive to the national reconciliation plan."
Al-Dhari, who is in Jordan, said the arrest warrant was illegal and "proof of the failure and the confusion of the Iraqi government."
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani issued the warrant on Thursday night, declaring on state television that al-Dhari was wanted for inciting terrorism and violence. Afterward, however, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, also a Shiite, sought to minimize it as an "investigation warrant." The spokesman said it is up to judicial authorities to issue an arrest warrant.
And Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said the Cabinet and the president's office had no knowledge about the arrest warrant. He called for an urgent meeting of political leaders to review the government's work.
The warrant is seen as certain to inflame Iraq's raging sectarian violence. The interior minister is a Shiite, while al-Dhari is a Sunni extremist who recently mocked a government offer of reconciliation in return for abandoning the insurgency.
Al-Dhari, who has been outside Iraq for months, said: "The timing of the warrant came when the Iraqi government felt embarrassed by its failure in security."
President Bush, speaking Friday in Asia, promised to stand with the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush said. "The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it."
Control of the area where the kidnapping took place had been formally handed to the Iraqi government from British and Italian forces.
An Iraqi police officer said the convoy had been stopped at a checkpoint on Thursday by Iraqi men, some of them wearing police uniforms. The company works mostly in Iraq, and its operations are based in Kuwait. Many of its managers and employees are American.
A U.S. Embassy official, who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information, said the convoy included 43 heavy trucks and six security vehicles. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Thursday that preliminary reports suggested the attacked convoy included about 19 vehicles.
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.
Italy formally handed over security responsibility of the southern Dhi Qar Province to Iraqi forces in late September, and British troops handed over control of the adjacent southern Muthana province in July.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.