Kidnappings a business in Iraq

March 14, 2005

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KIRKUK: Whatever the circumstances, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena is free at last. But questions remain at what price.

Her release has been clouded over by the death of the Italian intelligence agent who freed her from kidnappers. He was killed on the road to Baghdad’s airport by US security forces there to protect US Ambassador John Negroponte, though a US embassy spokesman in Baghdad refused to say whether Negroponte actually travelled on the road.

Sgrena, who reported extensively on the plight of Iraqi people under US occupation, maintains she was specifically targeted by the US military. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has questioned the US Army version of events.

But there could have been a simple cash price paid for her release. Western officials regularly deny that ransom is paid for the release of a hostage, but Italy’s Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno told reporters this week that Sgrena’s kidnappers were paid eight million dollars..

Meantime, French journalist Florence Aubenas remains in the custody of her kidnappers. Observers believe her case — like several other kidnappings in Iraq — will be solved with money.

Little is known about the whereabouts of the veteran foreign correspondent. The journalist for the left-leaning “Liberation” was kidnapped along with her Iraqi translator, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi. They were last seen leaving their Baghdad hotel in January.

She was held captive for eight weeks before a video appeared March 1. In the video she appeals to a French member of parliament for help.

“I ask especially for Mr Didier Julia to help me. Please, Mr Julia, it’s urgent, help me,” she pleaded. She appeared gaunt and spoke of deteriorating health.

A member of President Jacques Chirac’s conservative ruling party, Didier Julia is known for his contacts with Syria and the former Ba’athist regime in Iraq. After Sgrena’s release over the weekend, Julia issued a fresh appeal to the kidnappers of Florence Aubenas, asking them to free her as soon as possible. Like Sgrena, Aubenas focused her reporting on the plight of the Iraqi people.

“Florence Aubenas was apparently kidnapped by a mafia group,” Vincent Brossel, a researcher for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said. “Now she is supposed to be transferred to a group with a political background.”

Transferring Aubenas to such a group would increase her chances of safe release since France maintains no troops in Iraq. But Borosell believes Aubenas will eventually be released for money.

“Now it’s a business,” Brossel says of hostage-taking. “Some groups understand that a European or an American businessman or a journalist is a very expensive product in the sense that they can get millions of dollars in ransom.”

Ransom is almost always paid in the case of Iraqis who are kidnapped. Since the beginning of the occupation, the number of Iraq’s kidnapped for ransom has skyrocketed. With unemployment high and law enforcement weak, ransom was seen as an easy way to make money.

“A neighbour of ours was kidnapped,” 22-year-old nurse Taleibet Tamrir told IPS last April. “Her car was stopped and the kidnappers got in the car. She is an old woman who wears the veil. We still don’t know where she is.”

In Taleibet’s neighbourhood kidnappings had become so common that the same day she said someone tried to kidnap a woman walking along the river bank. “She screamed, and her captors let her go. She was lucky, she could have been killed.”

Even powerful Iraqis are not immune from the threat. “Before the Eid holiday (in January), they kidnapped my brother,” Sheikh Nife al-Jabouri said. His tribe is strong in north-western Iraq in the so-called Sunni triangle. Sheikh Jabouri says his brother was held for two weeks, and then released after a ransom payment.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.