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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 November 2006, 22:37 GMT
Kidnappers seize Iraqi minister
Wounded Iraqis receive treatment in Hilla on 19 November 2006
At least 22 people died in a suicide attack in Hilla on Sunday
Gunmen have kidnapped an Iraqi deputy health minister from his home in Baghdad, security sources have said.

Several men, some in uniform, arrived in police cars and pick-up trucks to seize Ammar al-Saffar, police said.

Mr Saffar's kidnap comes less than a week after dozens of people were abducted from the education ministry.

As some 50 Iraqis died in violence on Sunday, a top Syrian official on a landmark visit called for a timetable for foreign troops to withdraw.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim - the first senior Syrian official to visit Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 - said such a timetable would reduce violence.

Speaking at a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, Mr Moualem also expressed his country's full support for the government in Baghdad and Iraq's national unity.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem (l) and Hoshyar Zebari (r) speak in Iraq
It was the first visit by a top Syrian official since Saddam's fall in 2003

Mr Zebari said Mr Muallim's visit would open a "new page in relations between the two countries".

"Iraq's security is an issue for Syria and the neighbouring countries," he said. "It's important they support our government and fight terrorism."

The visit came amid calls for the Bush administration to involve Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran, in the search for an end to the conflict in Iraq.

But Mr Muallim stressed he was not in Iraq "to satisfy some other person".

He has previously said Damascus is ready to engage in a dialogue with Washington in an effort to achieve stability in Iraq and the surrounding region.

Uniformed guards

The challenge facing Iraq's government was highlighted by news of Mr Saffar's kidnap.

Six uniformed guards and several men wearing suits seized Mr Saffar from his home in Baghdad's Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya, police said.

Mr Saffar, one of several deputies to the health minister, belongs to the Shia Dawa party of Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

There is still confusion over the number of people seized in Tuesday's mass kidnap which was carried out by men wearing police-style uniforms. Sunni and Shia leaders cannot agree whether all the hostages have been freed.

There are also conflicting reports about the fate of five foreigners kidnapped from a civilian convoy in southern Iraq.

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

Labourers killed

Mr Saffar's abduction happened amid further bloodshed across Iraq.

In the worst single attack on Sunday, a suicide bomber struck a crowd of labourers looking for work in the town of Hilla, 100km (65 miles) south of Baghdad.

Wreckage at the scene of a triple bombing a at Baghdad bus station
A Baghdad bus station was hit by three bombs on Sunday
The bombing left at least 22 people dead and more than 40 injured in the mainly Shia Muslim town.

Witnesses said the bomber rammed a car laden with explosives into a crowd of men who were queuing in a yard.

"I was thrown a few metres by the blast and I couldn't see or hear for a few minutes as I was laying on the ground," Mohammed Abbas Kadhim, 30, said.

"People were racing everywhere looking for their missing sons, brothers, friends - all of them shouting: 'God is great,'" he said.

Hilla was the site of one of the worst bomb attacks since the US-led invasion, when in February 2005 a suicide bomber killed 125 national guard and police recruits.

In other violence on Sunday, three car bombs exploded at a bus station in a Shia area of eastern Baghdad, killing 10 people and injuring 45.

The Iraqi government estimates that 150,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003.

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