(AP) BAGHDAD, Iraq – In an extraordinary assault, gunmen in the city of Fallujah stormed a kidnappers’ lair and forced the overmatched militants inside to flee, freeing four Jordanian truck drivers held captive, local officials said Wednesday.
The raid, in a city that has long been hostile to the U.S. military and supportive of Saddam Hussein (news – web sites), marked the first time local gunmen had broken foreign hostages out of captivity. They called the kidnappers “terrorists” and outsiders.
Farther north, a series of battles between Iraqi authorities and insurgents in the city of Mosul killed 14 civilians and eight insurgents, the U.S. military said. Iraqi authorities clamped a curfew on the area and sealed off bridges into the city to restore order. The fighting was the fiercest in Mosul in months, and local authorities said insurgents appeared to be testing the police. No Iraqi or coalition forces were killed in the violence, the U.S. military said.
Some militant groups — which commonly attack U.S. and Iraqi forces with bombings and shootings — have turned to kidnapping in recent weeks, snatching poorly protected truckers driving the dangerous route near Fallujah, a hub of the insurgency 40 miles west of Baghdad.
U.S. Marines had pulled back from Fallujah after besieging the city for three weeks in April, leaving it in the hands of the Fallujah Brigade, made up of local residents and insurgents who fought the Marines and are commanded by officers from Saddam’s former army.
The four Jordanian truck drivers were seized last week along a highway near Fallujah, said Ahmad Abu-Jaafar, one of the freed drivers.
Sheik Haj Ibrahim Jassam, a tribal leader, said he received word late Tuesday that the men were being held in a house on the edge of the city. Local leaders gathered together armed residents, who raided the house, freeing the hostages and chasing out the kidnappers, he said.
Jassam called the kidnappers “terrorists, who are not from Fallujah.”
The Jordanians insisted their captors were not those who had battled the Marines.
“The kidnappers have nothing to do with the resistance,” Abu-Jaafar told The Associated Press by telephone.
The four men were taken back to Jassam’s house and handed over to Jordanian officials Wednesday, Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Ayed said.
“They are now in a safe place, which we will not disclose,” al-Ayed told reporters in Amman, Jordan. He said the four were in “good health” and would arrive home on Thursday.
The kidnappers made several demands, he said. “We haven’t met any of them.”
The men, who had been abducted by a group calling itself “Mujahedeen of Iraq (news – web sites), the Group of Death,” were blindfolded and moved to a different house every two days during their ordeal, Mohammed Khleifat, a freed hostage, told The Associated Press.
“We couldn’t eat the food they gave us. The four of us got sick from the food and the water,” he said.
The hostages heard that a man from the United Arab Emirates had been willing to pay the kidnappers $500,000 ransom, but the raid put an end to that, Khleifat said.
Insurgents have kidnapped scores of foreign hostages to force foreign companies and coalition troops from Iraq. In an effort to save the hostages, several companies have said they would stop their work here, and last month the Philippines withdrew its 51-member troop contingent to secure the freedom of a Filipino truck driver.
In a move to show kidnappers that none of the 31 other countries in the coalition would follow suit, the United States issued a statement Wednesday vowing not to make concessions to hostage-takers. Many of the other coalition members were expected to issue similar statements in the coming days, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
“We are united in our resolve to make no concessions to terrorists,” read the statement. “We understand that conceding to terrorists will only endanger all members of the multinational force, as well as other countries who are contributing to Iraqi reconstruction and humanitarian assistance,” it said.
In another hostage crisis, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad group freed two Turkish truck drivers, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Wednesday. In a video broadcast on the Al-Jazeera television station Wednesday, the militants said they were freeing the men because their company had promised not to haul any more goods to the U.S. military in Iraq.
The violence in Mosul, which the U.S. military called a coordinated wave of assaults, began about 11:30 a.m. with a drive-by shooting at the Karama police station. Soon after, an Iraqi police patrol was attacked in southern Mosul, the military said.
Later, dozens of masked men with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers moved through the streets in the Bab al-Toub section of the city. Police headed to the area and a gunbattle, punctuated by explosions, broke out, witnesses said.
Other violence in the city included a bomb attack on a U.S. convoy and attacks against the power plant and al-Jumhouri Hospital, the military said in a statement.
Militants also tried to loot a local bank, said Hazem Jalawi, spokesman for the provincial government. The fighting damaged shops and cars and left debris and rubble strewn throughout the streets.
Two U.S. bases in Mosul also came under attack, said Capt. Angela Bowman, a U.S. military spokeswoman.
“What has happened today, destruction by burglars and criminals, this proves that they are not real Iraqis,” chief of police, Mohammed Khairy Barhawie, said in a statement distributed by the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi civilian was killed when a roadside bomb detonated near an Iraqi National Guard patrol in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad Wednesday morning. The guards were unharmed, said Ali Hussein, from Baqouba’s General Hospital.