BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. forces captured two senior figures in al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, the U.S. military said Saturday, and one of Turkey’s richest businessmen was reported kidnapped, appearing in a video along with a weeping employee saying they were being held hostage.
In Baghdad, police uncovered more bodies under the rubble after a suicide bomber blew up a gas tanker in an upscale Baghdad district, bringing the death toll in the Friday night attack to at least nine people.
The video of the two Turkish hostages was the first report of a kidnapping of foreigners in Iraq in weeks — and it appeared the abduction netted one of the most high-profile victims yet.
Kahraman Sadikoglu is the president of the Istanbul-based Tuzla Shipyard and is famed in Turkey for having renovated and saved from ruin the “Savarona” — one of the world’s largest yachts, once used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Sadikoglu appeared in the video, aired on Turkish television, alongside Ahmet Yurtdas, the captain of one of his ships. No kidnappers appeared in the footage or issued any statement claiming responsibility and no demands were made. The video’s authenticity could not be confirmed.
“Today is Dec. 23. We were captured four or five days ago,” Sadikoglu said. “We’re fine and they will check us out, what we’re doing here, and will hopefully release us. God is Great.
Sadikoglu said he was working for the United Nations and the Iraqi government on a project clearing harbors of sunken ships. “We don’t have any problems with the Iraqi government, we’re creating jobs and food for the Iraqis,” he said. “If that is a crime too, then we will accept the punishment.”
The two men had not been heard from since they left the southern Iraqi city of Basra by land on Dec. 16, according to their families.
Several Turkish newspapers said a ransom demand of $25 million had been made, but Foreign Ministry officials and family members of the hostages refused to confirm the reports.
More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq this year, and at least 34 of them — including seven Turks — have been killed by their captors. Besides the two Turks in Saturday’s video, at least four foreigners are known to still be held, three of them Americans.
The U.S. Marines said Saturday they captured two men who led cells in Anbar province for Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaida in Iraq network. The province is a center for the insurgency and home to the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
A Marines statement identified the men as Saleh Arugayan Kahlil and Bassim Mohammad Hazeem. Their cells kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi National Guardsmen, carried out car bombings and other attacks in the Ramadi area and “smuggled foreign terrorists into the country,” the Marines said.
“This group is responsible for intimidating, attacking and murdering innocent Iraqi civilians, Iraqi police and security forces, and business and political leaders throughout the Unbar province,” the statement said.
Al-Zarqawi’s group, once known as Tawhid and Jihad, recently changed its name to Al-Qaida in Iraq and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. It has claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks against U.S. troops and government forces.
Violence has persisted across Iraq despite the U.S. military’s offensives last month aimed at putting down insurgents in several hotspots — including their stronghold Fallujah, which U.S. forces captured.
Friday night, a suicide bomber detonated a butane bas truck in the upscale Mansour district near the Libyan and Moroccan embassies, hours after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld left the capital, ending a one-day visit to speak to U.S. troops.
Rescuers on Saturday uncovered seven more bodies under the rubble of one of three houses wrecked in the blast, bringing the toll to nine Iraqis. At least 14 people were seriously wounded by the explosion.
The escalation in violence has come in the run-up to national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. While majority Shiites have embraced the polls as a chance to assert their numerical strength, radical elements within the minority Sunni community are leading the campaign to prevent the vote.
In other violence Saturday, a car bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy was passing through the southern town of Ein al-Nus, killing three Iraqis and wounding two, police said.
Gunmen shot dead Hasan Abdul-Ghani al-Rubaei, a professor at Baghdad University’s medical school, as he drove his car along the dangerous Haifa street where militants often launch attacks.
And a roadside bomb exploded Saturday near the car of the governor of eastern Diyala province, wounding four of his guards, officials said.
Governor Abdullah Rashid al-Jbouri was unharmed in by the blast in the town of Khan Bani Saad, halfway between Baqouba and Baghdad, said Dr. Abdullah Mohammed of the Baqouba General Hospital.
More displaced residents of Fallujah returned to inspect their devastated homes Saturday, the third day that authorities have allowed some citizens back into the city.
Repatriating the tens of thousands of people who fled Fallujah before the U.S. assault in November is a key step in the attempt to restore stability in the city ahead of January elections.
Some complained the strict security measures imposed by the government and U.S. troops on the returning refugees.
“Every two hours, they are letting one car pass through the checkpoint,” complained a man who identified himself only as Hassan. “And there are so many checkpoints and measures before we can get into the city, such as sniffing dogs and mirrors being put under our cars.”
On Thursday and Friday, a total 1,404 residents returned to their homes in the Andalus district of Fallujah under the supervision of government and U.S. forces, a Marine statement said.