Armed men wearing military fatigues seized two German engineers from a car in northern Iraq in the latest brazen kidnapping to push a foreign government into another desperate race to free its nationals.
Efforts continued on Tuesday to rescue Jill Carroll, the American freelance reporter kidnapped on Jan. 7 in Baghdad. Carroll's appearance last week on a silent videotape aired on Arab television marked the only sign of her since her abduction.
More than 250 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and at least 39 have been killed.
The German government confirmed that two young German males from Leipzig were kidnapped on Tuesday and said a special crisis team was sent to Iraq to deal with the matter. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Berlin was doing "everything in our power so that we not only receive information, but the hostages will be returned to us safely."
The hostages worked at an Iraqi state-owned detergent plant, near the oil refinery in Beiji, 250km north of Baghdad. German media said they were employed by Cryotec Anlagenbau, a manufacturing and engineering company involved in Iraq since before the 2003 war.
Police Captain Falah al-Janabi said gunmen using two cars and wearing military uniforms pulled the Germans out of a car while they were heading to work.
Another policeman, who declined to be identified for fear of being targeted by insurgents, said two Iraqi men, apparently co-workers, were in the same car as the Germans when at least four militants brandishing semiautomatic weapons stopped them.
The kidnappers bundled the Germans into two cars and sped away, leaving the two Iraqis behind, the policeman said.
Police searched for the hostages by erecting checkpoints throughout the area, where Brazilian engineer Joao Jose Vasconcelos Jr., was also kidnapped on Jan. 19, 2005. Vasconcelos' whereabouts remain unknown.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Shiite Muslims in the southern city of Basra demanded British troops free Iraqi policemen arrested on Tuesday in connection with multiple militia-linked assassinations.
In the northern city of Samarra, about 1,000 Sunni Arabs marched to condemn the execution-style killings of 31 Sunnis abducted after being rejected from a police academy.
The US military said four of its personnel were killed in separate incidents on Monday -- two soldiers in a Baghdad roadside bombing and two Marines in a vehicle accident west of the capital.
The number of US troops in Iraq has been cut to the lowest level since last summer, when a buildup for election protection expanded the force to about 160,000, Pentagon officials said on Tuesday.
There are now about 136,000 troops in Iraq, according to Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman. He said this meant that the extra forces in place during the October constitutional referendum and last month's parliamentary elections have been removed and a rotation of major combat units is almost complete.