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Coalition forces launch search for missing security contractors

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The mystery surrounding the kidnapping of four American security contractors and their Austrian co-worker deepened on Friday, a day after their convoy was hijacked by about 30 gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms in a rugged desert strip near Iraq's border with Kuwait.

A British spokesman for coalition forces in southern Iraq said the brazen seizure of the convoy, believed to include more than 50 vehicles, was rare in that sliver of Iraq.

A senior Iraqi police official in Basra said the convoy included 43 heavy trucks and six security vehicles, some of them intended for Iraqi police use.

One of the trucks contained weapons destined for Iraqi security forces, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements. The attackers made off with about half the vehicles in the convoy, leaving the rest abandoned, Iraqi police and witnesses said.

The spokesman, Capt. Tate Dunlop, said there'd been no sightings of the missing contractors since their convoy was ambushed at an Iraqi police checkpoint in the town of Safwan. He denied reports that American and British forces had fought with Iraqi gunmen on Friday in an effort to rescue the missing men.

He said that the fighting nearby was coincidental and had no links to Thursday's kidnappings. U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad also drew no connection between the convoy hijacking and Friday's fighting near Safwan.

"There's been no fighting raging whatsoever," Dunlop said. "If something happens in Manhattan and something happens in Brooklyn, both would be described as coming out of New York, even if they're two different incidents. Maybe people think it's like Baghdad, where hostages are taken and then there are big raids and gun battles, but this is pretty unusual for here."

Dunlop said coalition forces were "taking all necessary actions and steps to free the hostages." But what those steps were wasn't clear. He described them as "high-level" investigations by U.S.-led forces and Iraqi police in the southern hub of Basra.

U.S. military spokesmen in Washington and Baghdad referred questions about the kidnappings to the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, noting that while security contractors perform military-like duties such as protecting convoys, they're private citizens and have no formal relationship with the military. Embassy officials couldn't be reached, and the State Department had no comment.

It wasn't clear whether shots were fired during the hijacking.

The identities of the missing men weren't divulged. But the mother and sister of one of the missing contactors confirmed that they'd spent a sleepless Thursday night awaiting word after the State Department informed them of the kidnapping.

The women said they'd expected the contractor, Paul Reuben, 39, a former police officer from suburban Minneapolis, home to celebrate his 40th birthday on Nov. 24.

"It's really too hard to think about his fate," said his sister, Suzanne Reuben, 36.

His mother, Johnnie Reuben, said she last heard from her son a month ago. She said she worried that any expressions of love for her country and her support for her son's work might anger his kidnappers.

"I just hope whatever group has my son considers that they came from a mother," she said.

Paul Reuben, a former police officer in St. Louis Park, Minn., with twin 16-year-old daughters, had been in Iraq for about two years, working for the Crescent Security Group, a private contractor based in Kuwait that provides security services in Iraq, said his twin brother, Patrick Reuben.

Patrick said his brother, who'd served four years in the Marine Corps, had taken the job to earn money for a house and a Hummer. But Paul Reuben's wife, Jennifer, said he'd recently become concerned about his safety and was going to come home next week.

"They hate us here. They look you in the eye and say, `Go home, Americans,'" Jennifer quoted Paul as saying.

George Picco, Crescent Security's general manager, said gunmen seized 14 of the security company's employees during the ambush and released nine of them, all Asian drivers, unharmed.

But he said there'd been no word on the whereabouts of the four Americans or the Austrian. "We've heard absolutely nothing about them at this point," Picco said by telephone from Kuwait.

Picco said he couldn't release any details of the convoy's mission, and Dunlop, the British military spokesman, said he had no information on the convoy or what it was carrying.

The role of security contractors in Iraq has been a controversial one, with critics complaining that the business is largely unregulated and that contractors often take on dangerous assignments without the benefit of the armor and weaponry that U.S. troops would have.

The Crescent Security Group, one of dozens of such private security firms at work in Iraq, "conducts convoy escort duties for an ever growing number of coalition militaries, embassies, government contractors, private enterprise" and other clients, according to the firm's Web site. It says Crescent employs Western and Iraqi security contractors. It was unclear whether armed Iraqis, in addition to the four Americans and the Austrian, were traveling with the convoy.

But the hijacking was the topic of frenzied online conversations on Internet sites frequented by security contractors, who generally earn well in excess of $100,000 a year. While none of those posting on the sites claimed to know details of the hijacking, there were frequent discussions of whether security contractors are well enough armed to resist determined attackers and whether a security contractor would surrender weapons to Iraqi police officers at a legitimate police checkpoint.

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(Contributing to this report were Bill McAuliffe of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jay Price of the Raleigh News & Observer, and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy, Mohamed al Dulaimy and Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad. A McClatchy special correspondent in Basra is not identified for security reasons.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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