U.S. and British troops clashed with gunmen Friday in southern Iraq, a day after the kidnapping of four Americans and an Austrian near the site of the battle.
Iraqi authorities reported that at least two Iraqis were killed in the crossfire. Reports conflicted about whether the gunfight was connected with the Thursday abduction and about the fate of the five men, private security guards who were seized with nine other people near the border with Kuwait.
Iraqi authorities first said the Austrian had been killed and one American had been found wounded. Later, the police chief in the southern city of Basra, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Hadi Musawi, said Iraqi security forces had rescued two of the five men and that the Austrian had not been killed.
The nine other hostages -- from India, Pakistan and the Philippines -- were released, Iraqi authorities said.
As Musawi spoke by telephone from an area he said was near the kidnappers’ holdout, gunshots could be heard in the background.
In Washington, a State Department official said reports that one of the contractors had been wounded Friday were probably the result of officials conflating two separate attacks.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing unconfirmed information, said U.S. officials were unsure what had happened but believed the wounded contractor was with a different company and involved in a separate attack. “We are trying to find out exactly what happened,” the official said. “It is a very fluid situation.”
Separately, State Department spokesman Gonzalo R. Gallegos in Washington and U.S. officials in Baghdad released details about the abduction, saying the victims worked for Crescent Security Group and were traveling in a 43-vehicle supply convoy from Kuwait.
“The supply convoy was stopped at what appeared to be a police checkpoint near Safwan,” Gallegos said. “Nine drivers and one Austrian security personnel were abducted by people posing as police. All the personnel worked for Crescent. Nineteen trucks and one security vehicle were also taken.”
The gunmen wore Iraqi police uniforms, officials said.
Gallegos said U.S. officials were working with the British and Iraqis to bring about the workers’ safe return. The State Department has contacted the family members of the contractors; Gallegos declined to release the Americans’ names, citing security concerns.
Gallegos said he had no information on who might have conducted the attack.
The abduction, the third mass kidnapping this week, underscored the terrible security situation in the country. On Tuesday, gunmen raided a government office in Baghdad, abducting as many as 150 academics. It is unclear whether all have been released. On Thursday, at least 15 people were taken from a tea shop in Baghdad; none have been heard from.
The kidnappers in the two earlier kidnappings also wore police uniforms.
Capt. Tane Dunlop, a spokesman for British forces, saidBritish troops got involved in the Friday shootout with insurgents during a raid near Safwan. He said the operation was not connected with the kidnapping.
Though the area where the kidnapping took place is dominated by Sunni Arabs, the south in general is controlled by Shiite Muslim militias. During the last year, the south has become increasingly lawless as competing militias fight over money and political control. Killings and kidnappings are now common.
On Thursday night, mortars and rockets rained down on the British bases in Basra, but no one was hurt. A British soldier was injured when gunmen attacked a military convoy, a British army spokesman said.
Two other Americans, including an interpreter kidnapped last month, remain missing. Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, at least 371 contractors have been killed in Iraq, with Americans sustaining the most losses, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks casualties in the country.
On Friday, at least 39 Iraqis were killed or found dead around the country.
Gunmen killed a prominent sheik and six other Shiites in a Sunni-dominated area north of Dujayl, authorities said.
In Baghdad, four guards at a bank were killed in what appeared to be a $600,000 robbery. Later in the afternoon, mortar rounds fell on a Shiite neighborhood, killing three people and injuring 12. The chief engineer at the Ministry of Science and Technology was gunned down with his brother in a drive-by shooting. A former brigadier general in the Iraqi army also was killed.
Authorities also received 21 bodies, found in various neighborhoods.
In the north, insurgents blew up a Sunni shrine south of Kirkuk and gunmen killed two men in two separate attacks in the city.
Roug reported from Baghdad and Barnes from Washington. Times staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.