“What happened? What do you want?” asked a terrified Giuliana Sgrena as her heavily armed kidnappers dragged her into their car close to Baghdad University. Ms Sgrena, a correspondent for the left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto, was the latest journalist to be seized in Iraq where organised gangs have realised they can extort million of dollars in ransoms by kidnapping foreigners.
An ultimatum on an Islamic militant website by the so-called Islamic Jihad Organisation claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and issued a 72-hour ultimatum expiring today demanding that Italy withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq. It did not say what would happen to Ms Sgrena if that is not done.
Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman of the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, is scornful of the political demands and convinced they are only camouflage. “I have no doubt whatsoever it was done for money,” he said.
The gangs struck again in Baghdad yesterday, abducting four Egyptians working for the local mobile phone company Iraqna, a subsidiary of Egypt’s Orascom Telecommunications.
The kidnapping of Ms Sgrena on Friday and of Florence Aubenas, the correspondent of the French newspaper Libération, a month ago, have much in common, Mr Kadhim said. Both had believed they were going to interviews with Islamic religious leaders.
Ms Sgrena was seized near the al-Mustafa mosque. “She was supposed to meet a cleric called Hussein from Fallujah,” Mr Khadim said. “She waited for him from 10am to 1.30pm. A foreigner in a public place for that long is vulnerable. All it takes is one person with a mobile to phone a kidnap gang. I blame the Iraqis with her, her translator and driver, for not warning her of the danger.”
Ms Aubenas waited in the morning outside the Council of Ministers in Baghdad. She also had an appointment with a cleric from Taji, north of the city. But it is not clear if she went there and she may have been seized earlier with her translator in the Karada district of Baghdad.
The kidnapping of Ms Sgrena was well planned, coming on a Friday, the day of prayer, when gangsters know security may be lax. Iraqi security forces are also exhausted by supervising the election. Eight gunmen in two cars caught up with Ms Sgrena as her car was leaving the mosque. A grey Opel blocked her car and a man with a pistol raced up and opened her door. Her translator recalled: “I opened my door and dragged Giuliana away, but the man hit me with the butt of his pistol. The men came and dragged her away. She didn’t resist. She was very scared. She looked shocked and surprised.”
The translator begged his attackers to spare his life, saying, “I have children! Don’t kill me!” He was also pushed into a car but escaped when the university guards opened fire and the kidnappers shot back.
Some 190 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq in the past year but the number of Iraqis seized is far greater. Hotels in Jordan are thronged with middle-class Iraqis who have fled in fear of being kidnapped.
o Insurgents attacked a police station late last night killing 22 police and Iraqi soldiers in an hour-long gunfight. Up to 14 attackers also died in the clash, which broke out at about 10.30pm in Mahawil, 50 miles south of Baghdad.