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Kidnappers Strike Iraqi Science

14 November 2006 (All day)
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Gunmen abducted dozens of people working at the science and higher education ministry in Baghdad early today, only to release many of them late this evening, according to news reports. The attack, carried out by some 80 kidnappers, was one of the most brazen and massive kidnappings in the war-torn country to date, and was seen by some as another concerted effort by sectarians to undermine academic life in Iraq.

Scientists working outside Iraq were anxiously trying to find out all day what happened in Baghdad and surmise its effects on Iraqi science--all while fearing the worst about the fate of the kidnapped. "I have been very miserable today," says Abbas Al-Hussaini, an Iraqi engineer at the University of Westminster, U.K. who is secretary-general of the Iraq Higher Education Organizing Committee, a group trying to help rebuild science and education in Iraq.

News reports put the number of kidnapped between 30 and 150, but an Iraqi scholar working in the U.S. says that an Iraqi source has told him that as many as 228 people were missing. (The researcher asked not to be identified for fear of recriminations against his family.)

But after midnight in Iraq, CNN reported that many of the hostages had been released--although it's unclear if all of them are safe. The identity of the kidnappers is unknown. Television images today suggested that the ministry's Scholarship and Cultural Relationships Directorate had been the target.

Academics have been frequent targets of killings and abductions in Iraq the past year--part of a campaign that appears aimed at thwarting reconstruction efforts and silencing intellectuals; some estimates put the death toll in the hundreds. Just 6 days ago, the Scholars at Risk Network, an international group based in New York City, initiated a letter-writing campaign to ask the Iraqi, U.K., and U.S. governments to help investigate recent murders and better protect Iraq's higher education institutions. Today's mass-kidnapping "was about the worst-case scenario," says Robert Quinn, the network's director.

But Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, Switzerland, points out that other ministries have been targets of violence as well and says the kidnapping may have been aimed at destabilizing the Iraqi government. "I don't think there is a direct link with the killings of academics," he says.

Science and education minister Abdel Salam Thiab ordered universities in the country closed until the security situation has improved. "I don't think that's the solution," says Al-Hussaini, who says the government should beef up security instead. "Closing down the universities is exactly what [the kidnappers] want," he says.

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