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Last Updated: Friday, 24 September, 2004, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
Baghdad kidnapping crisis deepens
A man reads a leaflet appealing for information about Ken Bigley
Leaflets urging Mr Bigley's release have been handed out in Baghdad
Armed men have snatched two Egyptians from their office in Baghdad - the third kidnapping of foreigners in the Iraqi capital in less than three weeks.

Four other Egyptians were seized outside Baghdad a day earlier.

The latest abduction comes as relatives of UK hostage Ken Bigley and Italians Simona Torretta and Simona Pari continue an anguished wait for news.

More than 100 foreigners have been seized since March 2003. Most have been freed but at least 27 have been killed.

Many Iraqis have also been kidnapped - in most cases for ransom.

Black BMW

Two Egyptians were abducted at about 2200 (1800 GMT) on Thursday from their office in the upmarket Harithiya neighbourhood, interior ministry official Col Adnan Abdel Rahman told the Associated Press news agency.


He said the men were driven away in a black BMW.

They work for the Iraqna telecommunications firm which provides a mobile phone service and in which Egyptian company Orascom has a sizeable stake.

The Egyptian authorities also confirmed that another four Egyptians working for the company outside the capital were kidnapped on Wednesday.

An official at Egypt's embassy in Baghdad told AP news agency four Iraqis had also been seized, but that one had been released.

It is not clear who is behind the abductions.

Until recently, most of the kidnapping of foreigners took place on Iraq's dangerous roads but there has now been a spate of abductions in Baghdad.

UK hostage Ken Bigley and two Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were seized more than a week ago from their house in the wealthy Mansour district of the capital, where many multinational companies have their headquarters.

Prayers

The UK has said it is doing all it can to secure Mr Bigley's release, although it has ruled out negotiating with the kidnappers.

Mr Bigley's family, including his 86-year-old mother, have been making desperate appeals to the hostage-takers.

Simona Torretta and Simona Pari
It is not clear whether the Italian aid workers have been killed
Vigils are being held in Mr Bigley's home city of Liverpool.

In Baghdad, some 50,000 leaflets written in Arabic have been distributed carrying a message from Mr Bigley's relatives.

"We are Ken's family. Ken's mother, brothers, wife and child love him dearly. We are appealing for your help," it says.

"We appeal to those who have taken him to please return him safely to us."

The group holding him, the Tawhid and Jihad Group led by suspect al-Qaeda militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has threatened to kill the 62-year-old engineer unless all women in Iraqi jails are released.

The kidnappers have already beheaded the two Americans.

In Italy, people are clinging to the hope that two Italian women kidnapped in Baghdad on 7 September are still alive.

The Italian government has dismissed as "unreliable" claims that they had been killed.

Violence

Correspondents say the hostage crisis poses yet another challenge for Iraq's interim government as it tries to quell violence threatening to undermine efforts to hold credible elections by the end of January.

So you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet
Donald Rumsfeld
US Defence Secretary

Iraq's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, speaking before the US Congress on Thursday, insisted the vote would go ahead as scheduled and that the violence was concentrated in just three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

But US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later said voting might not be possible in some areas where militants are active and the violence is too great.

His comments were dismissed as "unhelpful" by UN official Carlos Valenzuela who is helping to organise the vote.



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