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After 3 weeks, no word on abducted contractors

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thursday marked the third week since four American security contractors and an Austrian co-worker were abducted in southern Iraq, with no hard information about their fate.

The men's employer said there's still "no proof" that the men are well. U.S. and Iraqi officials say they're pursuing leads, but offer no details. The unknown kidnappers have made no public pronouncements about the case.

Paul Reuben, 39, a former Minnesota police officer, Jonathon Cote, 23, a New York-born veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their unidentified colleagues, two other Americans and an Austrian, were providing security for a supply convoy in southern Iraq on Nov. 16 when they were ambushed in the southern town of Safwan and taken away.

Iraqi Army Brig. Ali Ibrahim, part of a three-person committee that oversees security in the Basra province, said Iraqi investigators have interviewed witnesses who led them to believe the hostages were still alive. Ibrahim wouldn't elaborate on the tips.

"I can't tell you more because we do not want to ruin the efforts, but we are very close to those people behind the kidnappings. They are under our watch," Ibrahim said.

Other officials involved in the search say reliable information has been scarce. The kidnappers haven't issued public confirmation of the contractors' physical conditions, and it remains unclear what group is holding the men.

The missing men all work for the private Crescent Security Co., based in Kuwait. A representative of the company, whose asked that his name be withheld for security reasons, said the company has no news on the missing men's condition and has had no contact with the kidnappers.

"Nobody's come and said anything about who it is," the Crescent Security spokesman said.

A company statement says the convoy was ambushed by "suspected militia dressed in Iraqi Police uniforms." Two main Shiite militias—the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization—are active in the south, but neither has claimed responsibility. Militia leaders frequently blame splinter groups for unauthorized abductions and attacks.

Iraqi police have hinted that criminal gangs are behind the attack, while some Iraqi media have linked U.S.-led raids in a Sunni enclave of the predominantly Shiite region to the kidnappings. Rumors abound that the contractors have been spirited to neighboring Iran or have been hidden in the slums of the Sadr City district of Baghdad.

Shortly after the kidnappings, an Iranian satellite TV channel aired a video from a previously unknown group calling itself the Mujahadeen of Jerusalem Company that claimed responsibility. A masked man demanded the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and release of prisoners.

U.S. and Iraqi officials mostly dismissed the tape, noting that it didn't show the contractors or any proof that the group was holding them.

"I've never heard of that particular group," said Capt. Tane Dunlop, spokesman for coalition forces in southern Iraq. "The video looks like somebody sitting in his kitchen with a balaclava on. It doesn't even show the hostages."

Dunlop said coalition forces have conducted a number of "strike operations" in the vicinity of the abduction site, but he quickly added that he "couldn't say they were anything particularly linked" to the hostages. He said he wasn't informed about Iraqi search efforts or witness interviews.

"There are lots of rumors swirling around," Dunlop said. "None of which turned out to be true."

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also reported "no new developments" and referred calls to Washington.

The 43-vehicle Crescent Security convoy had just crossed the Kuwaiti border on an assignment for the Italian military when gunmen in several vehicles swarmed the group and made off with 14 hostages and 19 heavy trucks.

Two security contractors—a Briton and a Chilean—were left behind unharmed, the Crescent spokesman said. Nine Asian truck drivers among those seized also were released, leaving just the four Americans and the Austrian.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.