BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen kidnapped 42 university students near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday, police said, in one of the biggest mass abductions in the country in many months.
“Gunmen stopped two buses in a village south of Mosul,” said Khalid Abdul-Sattar, police spokesman for Nineveh province.
“One of the buses managed to flee. The second bus was stopped and 42 male students were seized.”
No group claimed responsibility but suspicion will fall on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which has regrouped in northern provinces after being pushed out of western Anbar province and Baghdad following a series of military offensives.
The U.S. military says Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, is al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in the country.
In Baghdad, five people were killed and 17 wounded in clashes between U.S. soldiers and gunmen in a Shi’ite stronghold on Sunday, Iraqi police said.
The U.S. military said a helicopter air strike had killed nine “criminals” in the Sadr City slum although it was not aware of any gunbattles there. It gave no more details.
Police said the operation started in the early hours of Sunday and some fighting reached the outskirts of densely populated Sadr City, home to 2 million people in east Baghdad.
Sadr City is the stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Security forces fought gunbattles with the Mehdi Army in Sadr City late last month, part of clashes that killed hundreds of people in the capital and across southern Iraq.
No details were available on those killed on Sunday and it was unclear if the police toll included casualties from the air strike. Police said women and children were among the wounded.
They said U.S. forces had cordoned off some areas of the district, including police stations, and had prevented police from using their radio communications equipment. Some police in Sadr City are accused of being sympathetic to the Mehdi Army.
The fighting came after Iraq’s leaders called on all parties to disband their militias before provincial elections this year, an apparent attempt to isolate the populist Sadr.
The political council of national security, which comprises the president, the two vice presidents, the prime minister and the heads of political blocs in parliament, issued a 15-point statement at a late night news conference on Saturday.
A key demand was for all parties and political blocs to dissolve their militias immediately and hand in their weapons. The statement did not mention any militias by name, but Sadr appeared to be the target.