BASRA, Iraq – Iraqi forces searching for four Americans and an Austrian who were kidnapped in southern Iraq detained about 200 suspected insurgents, police said Sunday.
Police carrying machine guns and wearing fatigues and black face masks showed off their suspects Sunday by inviting the media to a police station where their prisoners were blindfolded and forced to sit on the ground outside. One of the suspects was a disabled man who had lost both legs at the knee and was sitting in a wheelchair.
Police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi said the men were detained late Saturday night by Iraqi soldiers who raided several areas north of Basra, the city that is 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. Basra is where most of the 7,200 British soldiers in Iraq are based.
Al-Moussawi said none of the hostages had been found during the raids.
The four American security guards and their Austrian co-worker have been missing since Thursday when a large convoy of trucks being escorted by their Crescent Security Group company was hijacked on a highway near Safwan, a largely Sunni Arab city of 200,000 people on the Kuwait border.
Suspected militiamen dressed in Iraqi police uniforms ambushed the convoy, taking 19 of its trucks and 14 hostages: the five security guards and nine foreign truck drivers who were later released.
Officials at Crescent Security Group Inc. refused to comment about the five hostages Saturday, but the company issued a statement on its Web site saying they remain unaccounted for.
Islamic Companies, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, according to an Iranian-run Arabic-language satellite news station. It said the group released a videotaped message saying it was holding the five men and demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the release of all prisoners being held there.
U.S., British and Iraqi forces have all spent time searching for the five captives.
Officials at Crescent Security Group, which is based in Kuwait, have stopped taking questions from the media about the hostages, saying they would only make statements on the company's Web site, which contained nothing new on Sunday.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael McClellan said on Sunday that U.S. officials believe the five hostages are still being held by their captors.
Austria's Foreign Ministry is still operating on the assumption that the Austrian and four Americans are alive, spokeswoman Astrid Harz said in Vienna on Sunday.
"According to our sources, the five should still be alive," she said.
Austrian officials have not confirmed the name of the missing Austrian, describing him only as a 25-year-old former soldier from the province of Upper Austria.
Only one of the American captives has been identified: Paul Reuben, 39, a former police officer from a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota.