BAGHDAD — Masked men in military uniforms kidnapped 18 Turkish citizens in Baghdad early Wednesday, bundling them into several SUVs and speeding away in a brazen operation that laid bare serious security gaps in the heavily defended city.
Iraqi and Turkish officials said the 18 are employed by Nurol Insaat, a Turkish construction company contracted to build a sports complex in the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City. The kidnappers stormed the construction site, where the workers were sleeping in caravans, breaking down doors and disarming the guards before taking the workers away, they said.
The Iraqi officials said an Iraqi national was kidnapped along with the Turks.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blamed organized crime for the kidnapping, but did not elaborate.
Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgic said those kidnapped included 14 workers, three engineers and one accountant. He said the kidnappers specifically targeted Turkish nationals, picking them out from the rest and leaving behind workers from other countries.
"The Iraqi authorities for the time being do not have information on how the incident occurred or who captured them," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told reporters.
In Baghdad, Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan told The Associated Press that authorities are investigating the incident. Neither the identity nor the motives of the kidnappers were immediately known, though both criminal gangs and the Islamic State group both have kidnapped foreigners in the past.
The sports complex appears to be nearly complete. A sign outside says it includes a 30,000-seat soccer stadium, a track and field facility and a 50-room hotel.
Turkey recently began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and allowing U.S. warplanes to use bases in southeastern Turkey to strike the Sunni extremist group.
It launched a simultaneous air campaign in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a Kurdish militant group.
Islamic State militants seized 49 diplomatic staff and family members from the Turkish consulate in Mosul when they captured the northern Iraqi city in June 2014. The group held them for three months before releasing them unharmed. Turkish officials have suggested — but never formally confirmed — that the release was secured in exchange for Islamic State prisoners held in Turkey.
Turkey held back from contributing to the U.S.-led coalition as it sought to free the 46 Turks and three Iraqi hostages.
Baghdad has been torn by violence for over a decade now, with roadside bombs, suicide attacks and assassinations occurring almost daily. While kidnapping for ransom has continued, abductions on the scale seen Wednesday have been almost unheard of in the past few years.
Al-Abadi this week instructed authorities in Baghdad to reopen streets that have been closed to traffic for years to ward off possible terror attacks. He also ordered that the "Green Zone," a heavily guarded swath of land on the west bank of the Tigris River that houses his office, parliament, the U.S. and British embassies, to be open again to traffic. The area has been walled off since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It is not immediately clear how much, if any, of the Green Zone would be open to normal traffic. Past attempts to relax security measures in the capital were answered with major terror attacks, forcing authorities to reconsider.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, roadside bombs ripped through busy commercial streets in different parts of Baghdad, killing nine people and wounding 29, police and hospital officials said. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists.
Meanwhile in Anbar province, a spokesman for the local government, Eid Ayash, said about 200 inhabitants of a remote western town have been released four days after Islamic State militants detained them for taking part in a demonstration against the killing of a local resident. Ayash said some of those released in the town of Rutbah bore signs of torture, but he gave no further details.
In their crackdown following the Saturday demonstration, IS militants tied about a hundred protesters to streetlight poles for 24 hours before they took them away.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.