Seven employees of Kuwaiti trucking firm freed in Iraq |

Seven employees of Kuwaiti trucking firm freed in Iraq

Associated Press Writer
Insurgents stand near military supply convoy trucks destroyed by them at Hit, 110 kilometers (68 miles) west of Baghdad, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004, in this photograph made available on Sept 1. Four trucks could be seen smoldering on the highway after the attack and four Iraqi drivers working for foreign contractors were allegedly kidnapped. (AP Photo/Ali Ahmed)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Militants in Iraq freed seven foreign truck drivers Wednesday after holding them six weeks, while Muslims united behind calls for the release of two French reporters captured by a separate group demanding that France revoke a ban on Muslim head scarves in schools.

Also Wednesday, gunmen shot at a convoy carrying former Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi as he returned from Najaf to attend the first meeting of Iraq’s 100-member National Council, which is to act as a watchdog over the interim government and help shepherd the nation to elections. The council was formally sworn at the Baghdad convention center, in a ceremony marred by a nearby mortar attack that injured one person, the U.S. military said.

Port agents and Iraqi oil officials said Iraq’s southern oil terminals were fully operational and exports through them were running at between 1.7 million and 1.9 million barrels a day. There had been conflicting reports earlier in the week over whether new attacks on oil facilities had shut down shipments.

Hostage-taking has been one of the tactics used by militants waging a 16-month-old campaign of sabotage, assassinations and bombings seeking to destabilize Iraq and drive out coalition forces and reconstruction workers. Some kidnappers have also taken hostages in an effort to extort ransom from their families and companies.

Wednesday’s release of seven hostages – from India, Kenya and Egypt – came a day after a video surfaced on a militant Muslim Web site showing the purported killing of 12 Nepalese workers kidnapped in Iraq.

The seven men had been kidnapped July 21 by a group calling itself The Holders of the Black Banners and demanding that the truckers’ home governments pull all their citizens out of Iraq and that their Kuwaiti employer withdraw as well. It later also demanded that Iraqi prisoners in Kuwaiti and U.S. prisons be freed and compensation be paid to victims of fighting in Fallujah.

The group repeatedly extended a deadline hanging over the hostages as local mediators worked on a deal for their release. Last Thursday, the kidnappers dropped nearly all their demands and said they would free the hostages if their employer, Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co., agreed to stop working in Iraq.

On Friday, Rana Abu-Zaineh, an official at the company, said it had agreed. Soon after, the kidnappers prepared to release the men.

“They told us about two days ago that (we) were being released and we felt very happy, and we did not sleep out of our joy,” one of the released hostages, Egyptian Mohammed Ali Sanad, told the Arabic television station Al-Arabiya.

The announcement of their release sparked celebrations in their home countries. “My joy today is as big as the whole world. I feel he is born again,” said Sanad’s mother, Nadia al-Shanawani.

The French hostage crisis persisted, with Arab leaders and Muslims worldwide trying to help save journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who disappeared Aug. 19 on their way from Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian chauffeur also vanished.

A group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq claimed to be holding the two, demanding France abolish its ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools. French leaders refused, insisting the ban would take effect when schools open their fall term on Thursday.

Diverse organizations ranging from the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for deadly twin bombings in Israel on Tuesday, to Sunni and Shiite Iraqi religious leaders issued statements on behalf of the hostages in a show of support not seen previously in efforts to free more than 100 foreigners kidnapped in Iraq in recent months.

France’s government has won friends in the region by opposing the U.S.-led war in Iraq and by following generally pro-Arab policies.

Meanwhile, attackers shot at a convoy carrying Chalabi in an apparent assassination attempt that wounded two of his bodyguards Wednesday morning, the Interior Ministry said.

“There are many terror bands there and we must work very hard, very quickly to free this area from the scourge of the terrorists,” said Chalabi, a one-time Pentagon favorite who fell out of favor with the United States.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a statement condemning the attack, which he said was conducted by “terrorist groups in an attempt to launch a campaign of terror and destabilization in our dear country by targeting political and religious figures.”

Hours later, an unharmed Chalabi joined the National Council for its swearing-in ceremony. The council later chose as its president Fuad Masoum, a Kurd who had served as chairman of the national conference last month that helped choose the members of the council.

The council has the power to approve the national budget and can veto some government decisions with a two-thirds majority vote.

As the meeting convened, several mortar rounds exploded near the convention center, inside the heavily guarded Green Zone enclave, wounding one person, the U.S. military said.

“There were between three to five impacts around the checkpoint there causing one injury, an Iraqi citizen, and he is being treated,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman.

Two rounds later landed in the Green Zone itself, sending up a plume of gray smoke. There was no word on whether the second attack caused any injuries.

Elsewhere in the capital, talks to end fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City stalled, with the government refusing militant demands for American troops to keep out of the district, negotiators for the militants said Wednesday.

A tentative agreement was initially reached Monday on a proposal that would have barred U.S. troops from entering the slum without Iraqi government permission, but the government backpedaled the next day, said Naim al-Kaabi, a spokesman for rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

State Minister Qassim Dawoud denied the government ever agreed to a deal. “It wasn’t (an) agreement. We don’t like to reach any agreement with any militia people,” he said.

Maj. Phil Smith, an Army spokesman for the Baghdad-based 1st Cavalry Division, said that U.S. commanders were not involved in the talks and that as far as he was aware “no agreement has been reached.”

The talks came after al-Sadr accepted a peace deal last week to end three weeks of fighting in Najaf. But clashes have continued in other Shiite areas.