Thu, Sep 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Iraq getting too expensive for foreign contractors

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

A Turkish construction firm became the latest company to halt operations in Iraq on Tuesday in order to win the release of 10 of its staff held hostage by militants.

The UK has refused to make concessions to the militants holding the British contractor Kenneth Bigley captive in Iraq, as did the US before Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley were executed by their captors. But many other countries and companies have given in to kidnappers' demands in an attempt to free hostages.

Since militant groups began seizing foreigners in Iraq six months ago, they have made a significant impact on the operation of the US-led military coalition. In some cases, kidnappers have secured important political decisions, hampered the logistics of the US military or delayed reconstruction projects. In other cases it has been simply a matter of thousands of dollars in ransom.

On Tuesday Vinsan Construction Co, based in Ankara, said it was freezing its operations in Iraq after 10 employees were kidnapped. The men, mostly truck drivers, were working on a road project when they were abducted.

The kidnappers said in a video broadcast on Saturday that the men would be killed if the firm did not pull out of Iraq within three days.

The firm's chairman, Ali Haydar Veziroglu, was in Baghdad on Tuesday trying to secure their release.

"Asking the Turkish companies including our company to leave Iraqi territories by using illegal and odious deeds is sorrowful and dubious," he said. "Dear beloved Iraqi people, we do not deserve this."

At least seven other Turkish firms have pulled out of Iraq after their drivers were kidnapped. The road from the Turkish border in northern Iraq through Mosul and on to Baghdad is a supply route for construction firms and the US military; stretches of the road also run through the heartland of the Sunni insurgency leaving drivers open to kidnap. In early July two Turkish workers, an air-conditioning repairman and his colleague, were freed after a month in captivity when their firm, Kayteks, promised to cancel its contracts with the US military.

So many other Turkish drivers have been killed that last month a Turkish trucker group, the International Transportation Association, said its members would stop delivering to US bases in Iraq.

But it is not just Turkish firms that have been targeted. Last week a Jordanian trucking firm said it would stop work in Iraq in order to free one of its drivers who had been taken hostage. In July, a Saudi Arabian logistics firm pulled out of Iraq after one of its drivers was kidnapped.

Perhaps the biggest concession made so far came from one of the US' erstwhile coalition allies. In July, a Filipino trucker was taken hostage and his kidnappers demanded Filipino troops pull out. Within days Manila withdrew its small military contingent a month ahead of schedule, despite public criticism from the US.

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