Da The Daily Star del 20/06/2006
Originale su http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_ID=10&article_ID=7...

Al-Qaeda in Iraq 'abducts' 2 US troops, 4 Russian diplomats

Militants give Moscow 48 hours to pull out of chechnya

Iraqi security forces will take control of the country's southernmost province from a British-led multinational force in July in the first move of its kind, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday.

As Maliki tried to take charge, Al-Qaeda in Iraq issued two statements saying that it was holding two American soldiers and four Russian "diplomats" hostage.

The group gave Moscow 48 hours to pull out from Chechnya and free Muslim prisoners.

"We have a plan to transfer security from coalition troops to local forces and the first governorate where it will take place is the province of Al-Muthanna next month," Maliki told reporters after talks with Japan's ambassador.

Based on the city of Samawah, the province is patrolled by 400 Australian and 250 British troops.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that the handover of control in Muthanna did not mean that British, Australian and Japanese troops were pulling out immediately.

"It does mean there will be a gradual transition to the Iraqis taking control ... This is a significant step toward Iraq controlling its own destiny," he told reporters in London.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pledged to keep supporting Iraq after the Japanese mission ends, offering loans to build bridges and roads.

British-led troops are to continue patrolling the southern provinces of Maysan and Basra.

Muthanna Province is relatively quiet and is much easier to hand over than the violence-wracked oil port city of Basra to the east or insurgent strongholds further north such as Youssefiyya, where the two US soldiers went missing.

On an unannounced visit to Baghdad Monday, British Defense Minister Des Browne called for a major security crackdown in Basra, along the lines of a similar operation under way in the capital.

"I am here to discuss an equivalent plan for security in Basra," Browne told a joint news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

"That new security plan has a long-term aim to hand over security to Iraqi Army and police, accepting that there have to be reforms - particularly to the aspect of the police service," he said.

Browne said the coalition troops will stay as "long as there is a job to be done and as long as the Iraqi people and the government want us."

A massive manhunt was meanwhile under way for the two missing US soldiers, with more than 8,000 Iraqi and US troops deployed across the area south of Baghdad where the

men were attacked. The Al-Qaeda linked Mujahideen Shura Council said it was behind the abduction.

"We will provide you with more details about the incident in the next coming days," the Council said. The authenticity of the statement could not be confirmed.

The Council, which is made up of Al-Qaeda and other militant groups, said it had also abducted the four Russian diplomats and killed a fifth in an attack on June 3 in Baghdad. "The Council's Sharia court decided to give the Russian government 48 hours to meet the following demands or bear the consequences: the immediate withdrawal from Chechnya and the release of all our brothers and sisters held in Russian jails." The group did not specify the consequences.

The Council said that while it was aware that Russia had been opposed to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, it had erred by "sending its diplomats to Iraq in support of the crusader project led by America." It also accused Moscow of killing Muslims in Chechnya and in Afghanistan.

In other violence, four people were killed and eight others were wounded when a car bomb targeting an Iraqi Army patrol exploded in the Al-Waziriyya neighborhood.

Three people, including a police commando, were later killed in another car bomb aimed at a police patrol in western Baghdad, according to the same source.

In the town of Mahmoudiyya, south of the capital, three people were killed and 23 wounded when an explosive device blew up in a busy market, the source said. Elsewhere in Iraq, at least 13 people were killed in a string of attacks.

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