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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 19:41 GMT
Confusion on Iraq hostages' fate

Conflicting reports have emerged about the fate of five foreigners kidnapped from a civilian convoy in Iraq.

The men - four US citizens and an Austrian - were seized on Thursday near Basra as they drove towards Nasiriya.

The provincial governor in Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, said one hostage had been killed and two freed in a raid.

But a top Basra policeman quoted by AP news agency said the governor had confused two incidents, and all five men were still being held.

The police officer, Maj Gen Ali al-Moussawi, said the five were in the hands of what he called a criminal gang which had demanded a ransom.

US officials in Baghdad also said they could not confirm the two reported releases.

Reports said British and US forces had been mounting raids in the area to find the hostages.

Unconfirmed reports said the kidnapping took place at a bogus checkpoint.

Convoy escort

A spokesman for Crescent Security Group, which operated the convoy, said nine civilians were freed at the time of the incident, including men from India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Crescent works mainly in Iraq. Its website says it "conducts convoy escort duties for an ever-growing number of coalition militaries, embassies, government contractors".

The family of an American man, Paul Reuben, 39, confirmed to US media it had been informed that he was among those captured.

His sister-in-law, Jennifer Reuben, said he had called last week to say he planned to come home because of increasing violence.

Nasiriya is the capital of Dhi Qar province, which was returned to Iraqi control in September.

Hijackings and abductions are frequent in southern Iraq but those kidnapped are generally freed, unlike in the Sunni strongholds further north.

Baghdad abductions

Separately, there is still confusion over the kidnapping of scores of education ministry workers in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Sunni and Shia leaders cannot agree whether all the hostages have now been freed.

The Sunni higher education minister said more than half the 150 victims were still being held.

But interior ministry spokesman Brig Gen Abdul-Karim Khalaf said all the ministry employees were free, although some others taken from the building were still being held.

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