Status Of Abducted Americans A Mystery

In this undated photo released by the St. Louis Park Police Dept., former St. Louis Park police officer Paul Reuben is shown. AP Photo/St. Louis Park Police

British soldiers backed by U.S. military helicopters battled insurgents near the Kuwaiti border Friday, close to where a private security team of four Americans and an Austrian were kidnapped. A top police official said a criminal gang had snatched the men and demanded ransom.

Gunmen wearing police uniforms abducted the security team near Safwan, a largely Sunni Arab city of 200,000 people in southern Iraq. The attack took place shortly after the Westerners had crossed the Kuwaiti border with a large convoy of supply trucks.

The convoy was traveling on the Iraq Military Road, which is infrequently used by civilian vehicles. Sunni insurgents attack supply convoys on a daily basis, not only on the roads from Kuwait but also from Turkey in the north and Jordan in the west.

Convoys are heavily armed, but not heavily enough. They can be several dozen vehicles long and are often attacked in the middle, their weakest point, reports CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

Basra police Maj. Gen. Ali al-Moussawi refused to give details of the ransom demand late Friday after a series of confused and apparently incorrect reports that variously claimed the Austrian had been found dead and one of the Americans was gravely wounded. Another discounted report came from the Basra governor, who had said two Americans were freed and one hostage killed.

Al-Moussawi said police believed the five employees of the Crescent Security Co. were being held in the Safwan region along with trucks from the convoy.

Click here to read Armen Keteyian's report on civilian contractors deployed in Iraq.
Throughout the day, U.S. officials and the British military, which still has about 7,000 troops in the Basra region, said they had no information on the kidnapped men.

The confusion in reports from Iraqi officials apparently grew out of their having been unaware initially of a fresh incident on Friday involving a British security team that had been stopped by Iraqi customs police on the same road where the Crescent Security team was abducted.

In other developments:

  • Americans' approval of President Bush's handling of Iraq has dropped to the lowest level ever, increasing the pressure on the commander-in-chief to find a way out after nearly four years of war. The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found just 31 percent approval on his handling of Iraq, days after voters registered their displeasure at the polls by defeating Republicans across the board and handing control of Congress to the Democrats. The previous low in AP-Ipsos polling was 33 percent in both June and August.

  • The Defense Department announced Friday that 57,000 U.S. troops, including five combat brigades, have been told to deploy to Iraq early next year. The deployment will maintain current force levels there. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signed the deployment orders for about 20,000 soldiers from active duty Army brigades based in four U.S. states and in Italy. Another 10,000 reserves and 27,000 active duty troops are scheduled to go to Iraq in smaller units.

  • Senators sat down Friday with Robert Gates for the first time since President Bush selected him to become the next defense secretary, and said they would push for him to be confirmed by the end of the year. The nominee is expected to testify publicly before the Senate Armed Services Committee the week of Dec. 4.

  • 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-Moussawi said that as police checked the papers of the British security men in the lead vehicle, a car drove by at high speed and opened fire, killing one Briton and wounding a second in the car. British officials in Basra confirmed an incident involving security men but would provide no details.

    The police major general speculated that Basra Gov. Mohammed al-Waili was not aware of that incident and had assumed the dead and wounded were from the group of five kidnapped the day before.
    • Robb Todd

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