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Wed 13 Feb 2008 02:48 AM

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Iraq launches search for kidnapped journalists

Hunt underway to find British photographer taken by gunmen from a Basra hotel.

Security forces have launched a search for a British journalist and his Iraqi translator working for US television network CBS who were kidnapped in the port city of Basra, an official said on Tuesday.

"There is an intensive operation underway to find the journalists," interior ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told newswire AFP.

"These are journalists doing their job and those common criminals must be brought to justice".

Witnesses said the two journalists were led away from the Palace Sultan Hotel in the southern city of Basra at gunpoint by a gang of about 10 gunmen on Sunday.

The witnesses identified one as a British photo-journalist who had previously worked in Basra, and the other as his Iraqi interpreter. Both men had flown to Basra from Baghdad and checked into the hotel on Saturday.

Dozens of Iraqi and foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

Underscoring the perils, the Young Journalists League said the body of an Iraqi journalist was found in Baghdad on Tuesday, two days after he disappeared after heading out shopping.

According to League president Haider Hassoon, the body of Hisham Mijwit Hamdane, a 27-year-old married father of two, was found by police in the Bab al-Sheikh neighbourhood of central Baghdad.

Police on Tuesday threw a cordon around the Palace Sultan hotel in Basra, searching for clues and restricting movement in and out of the premises, an AFP correspondent said.

The US network confirmed in a statement that two of its journalists had gone missing in Basra but gave few other details, wanting to protect their identities.

Britain's Press Association said that the kidnapped Briton had covered the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and worked for titles including the Sunday Telegraph, the New York Times and the Financial Times.

It quoted the hostage's wife as saying: "It is still early days. We are just praying for him to be safe."

Oil-rich Basra province was handed over to Iraqi control in mid-December by British forces, who are now based at a nearby airport.

The British Foreign Office said it was investigating the incident.

"We are aware of reports of a Western national missing in Basra and we are urgently looking into it," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said in London.

The province has been the scene of fierce turf wars between rival Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

Sadr's movement on Tuesday distanced itself from the abductions.

"We denounce and condemn the abduction of journalists all over Iraq in general and in Basra in particular," the Basra wing of the movement said. "We ask the abductors to release the journalists".

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said at least 208 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq since March 2003.

Most are Iraqis who were killed by insurgent groups or militias angered by their coverage or ideologically opposed to their employers. Others have died when caught in crossfire.

Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni was killed in August 2004 by extremist group the Islamic Army of Iraq, which also claimed the kidnapping of French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who were released in December 2004 after four months in captivity.

Other Westerners who have been abducted and later released include US freelancer Jill Carroll who was kidnapped in January 2006, French journalist Florence Aubenas who was taken in January 2005 and Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena who was nabbed in February 2005.

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