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Germany

Politicians Call Hostages' Company to Account for Abduction

The company that employs the two German engineers kidnapped in Iraq was accused on Thursday of failing to protect its staff by leading politicians who said it should pay part of the cost of finding them.

The crisis center at the Foreign Ministry has little to go on as US forces continue the hunt

"Those who sent these two technicians over there and let them work without protection bear a heavy responsibility," Gernot Erler, a deputy foreign minister, told Thursday's edition of the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Cryotec, a Leipzig-based engineering firm, sent Rene Bräunlich, 31, and Thomas Nitzschke, to work at the Baiji oil refinery compound in northern Iraq for a few days but they were seized on Tuesday by armed men in military uniform.

It was "absolutely clear" that the company should be asked to make a contribution to the costs incurred in trying to secure the men's release, Erler said.

His call was backed by Wolfgang Bosbach, a leading member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "It would be a symbolic contribution, not compensation," Bosbach told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper.

While there was no immediate response from Cryotec, the company's sales director, Peter Bienert on Wednesday appealed for the release of his colleagues in an interview with the regional Leigziger Volkszeitung newspaper.

"What I want to see is our colleagues return quickly and in good health," he said.

In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there had been no contact with the kidnappers, and government spokesman Thomas Steg said the reason for the abduction was still unknown.

Roadblocks and security controls

US and Iraqi forces have set up roadblocks and increased security controls in a bid to rescue the men, who, according to a security official, were bundled into civilian pick-up trucks.

A guard at the refinery, whose access was cordoned off, told AFP the Germans were snatched by seven men, all in army uniform, including two with officer rank.

The kidnappers were reportedly posing as Iraqi soldiers

"They drove them off towards the north of the town," Mohammad Ahmad said.

A successful abduction industry?

According to newspaper reports, a third German was able to escape from the attackers, but there's no news from him either.

The president of Germany's BND intelligence agency, Ernst Uhrlau, said he was shocked by what appeared to be yet another abduction case. He said it would take some time to identify who was behind the disappearance of the two German engineers.

Foreign Minister Steinmeier and his deputy, Klaus Scharioth, during a crisis group meeting on Tuesday

"Iraq is increasingly being associated with a successful abduction industry," he said. "The people involved in this trade may have a fundamentalist, nationalist or simply criminal background. But the experience gathered over the past two years has shown us that once there are hostages, the various kidnappers in Iraq have a strong network of communication among themselves. This makes it impossible right now to say who exactly is behind the disappearance of the two German engineers."

Some German nationals are understood to work at the Baiji power station, located some 200 kilometers (140 miles) north of Baghdad, from where a Brazilian engineer was kidnapped a year ago.

A video still showing Susanne Osthoff (third from left) in the hands of her kidnappers

Joao Jose Vasconcellos was kidnapped in January 2005 and authorities have heard nothing of his fate since.

Iraq's oil ministry also said it was looking into the report.

Latest in a surge of abductions

More than 250 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. A number, including Westerners, have been killed.

The abduction of the Germans was just the latest seizure of foreigners in Iraq over the past few weeks.

US journalist Jill Carroll was taken captive Jan. 7 by militants who threatened to kill her, while two Kenyan telecommunications engineers were kidnapped last week.

There is still no news on the fate of four Western peace activists kidnapped in late November, while a Jordanian held hostage said in a videotape his captors set a new deadline to execute him.

More abductions to follow?

Joao Jose Vasconcelos

Michael Pohly, a Middle East expert, said that the recent abductions may only be the beginning of a series of further kidnappings of Germans. He said he's convinced that the kidnappers received a hefty ransom for Osthoff's release.

"It can't be ruled out that the hostage affair around Susanne Osthoff has encouraged criminal elements in Iraq to go for more," he said. "Germans had not been the main target group, as far as abductions are concerned. But it certainly had an impact on the criminals' strategy that the

French and Italian governments paid ransoms to free their hostages."

Pohly added that he is certain that the German government also paid a ransom in the Osthoff case. This is making German citizens in Iraq more vulnerable, he said.

Some 40 foreigners are currently believed to be in the hands if Iraqi hostage-takers. The German foreign ministry has issued a travel warning, saying that German citizens are advised not to visit Iraq. Those already in Iraq should leave the country as soon as possible.

DW.DE