American forces were yesterday accused of violating international law by taking two Iraqi women hostage in a bungled effort to persuade fugitive male relatives to surrender.
US soldiers seized a mother and daughter from their home in Baghdad two weeks ago and allegedly left a note on the gate: "Be a man Muhammad Mukhlif and give yourself up and then we will release your sisters. Otherwise they will spend a long time in detention."
It was signed Bandit 6, apparently a military code, and gave a mobile phone number. When phoned by reporters an American soldier answered but he declined to take questions and hung up.
Salima al-Batawi, 60, and her daughter Aliya, 35, were blindfolded, handcuffed and driven away in a Humvee convoy on April 2, leaving the Arab Sunnis of Taji, a suburb north of the capital, incandescent.
Instead of surrendering, her three sons, Ahmad, Saddam and Arkan, alerted the media. None of them are called Muhammad, but it is believed that the note referred to Ahmad and that the Americans wanted all three brothers.
The brothers have spent time in Abu Ghraib jail, but have never been charged and say they are citrus farmers with no connection to the insurgency.
Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Kent, of the 3rd infantry division, said the women had been seized as suspected insurgents in their own right and not as a bargaining chip.
"We do not take hostages. Sources told us the women were present during meetings to plan attacks against coalition forces and that they had knowledge of terror cell leaders and the location of weapons caches in the area."
He said there was a separate inquiry into Bandit 6's note, which was handwritten in Arabic.
After six days in a US jail near Baghdad airport the women were released without charge but could be rearrested if implicated in an ongoing investigation, Lt Col Kent said.
Nicole Choueiry, of Amnesty International, said: "I do not think it is the first time. It is against international law to take civilians and use them as bargaining chips."
Detaining women has become an explosive issue in Iraq. A statement purportedly from the militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said a recent rocket attack by insurgents on Abu Ghraib was partly to avenge the incarceration of women.
US officials claim there are no longer any female inmates in a facility made notorious for abuses revealed last year, including evidence of sexual misconduct against women.
Back home yesterday, Mrs Batawi said Americans threatened to hold her until her sons surrendered but treated her and her daughter with respect. "They carried out a professional investigation. We found beds with clean sheets and copies of the Koran and bottles of water in a big room."
However, she felt humiliated being forced to wear an orange prison uniform without a headscarf and resented being asked whether she was Shia or Sunni.
A militant group said yesterday it kidnapped the deputy of the Pakistani chargé d'affaires in Baghdad, Malik Mohammad Javed. A separate group said it had captured and killed Basem Mohammed Kadem, a brigadier general in the Iraqi army.
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