On Wednesday, masked gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped 18 Turkish nationals from a sports stadium they were building in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, according to their employer, Ankara-based Turkish conglomerate Nurol Holding.
Ugur Dogan, the company’s chief executive officer (CEO), said no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping or contacted Nurol with any demands, adding that the construction firm recently took steps to reduce its workforce at the stadium to a minimum in response to deteriorating security conditions, reports The Wall Street Journal.
“Security risks have been there since the beginning, but we never thought they would escalate to this,” Mr. Dogan reportedly said. “We had never been directly targeted before, we don’t know the reason for this.”
A policeman added that “aware of the threats against Turkish nationals in Iraq, the stadium workers kidnapped on Wednesday were never allowed off-site,” notes WSJ.
Turkey said the kidnapping of its fellow countrymen appeared to be targeted.
“Diplomats have said Turkey could suffer reprisals after abandoning months of reticence to launch air strikes against Islamic State in neighboring Syria and open its bases to a U.S.-led coalition fighting the Sunni Muslim militants,” reports Reuters.
The kidnappers were reportedly riding in pickup trucks when they stormed the stadium and seized the workers, according to Nurol.
“People dressed in military uniforms broke down the door at 3 a.m. [Wednesday] (8 p.m. EDT Tuesday) and abducted all these people,” according to the company’s CEO.
“The gunmen drove into the Al Hababiya Olympic Stadium in a convoy of 20 pickup trucks, rounded up Iraqi security guards, and stormed trailers where the Turkish workers were sleeping,” said an unnamed Iraqi security official, WSJ reports.
Tanju Bilgic, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, revealed that the kidnappers took fourteen construction workers, three engineers, and one accountant.
WSJ points out that the stadium “is guarded around the clock and protected by a three-meter concrete wall.”
The Iraqi guards were not taken hostage.
Nurol’s CEO “said he didn’t know how the militants had managed to breach security, and that they had taken recordings from the suite’s security cameras in an effort to cover their trail.”
Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, a spokesman for Iraq’s Interior Ministry, reportedly stated that the Turkish nationals were taken from the predominantly Shiite district of Habibiya in Sadr City.
Sadr City is a Shiite neighborhood dominated by anti-Islamic State fighters and supporters, and a frequent target of the group’s car bombs. In August, dozens of shoppers were killed at a large outdoor market, and kidnappings for ransom are a frequent occurrence.
Wednesday’s incident triggered the second hostage crisis Turkey has experienced in Iraq in the past year.
In 2014, Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists in the Iraqi city of Mosul took 46 Turkish citizens hostage. They were eventually set free without injuries after more than three months in captivity.
“Iraqi officials said it was unlikely Wednesday’s attack was the work of Islamic State, despite previous assaults by the group on Turkish nationals and recent calls by its leaders for militants to wage jihad against Turkey,” The Wall Street Journal reports.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, referring to Wednesday’s kidnapping, said Iraqi and Turkish investigators are cooperating.
“Officials in Iraq don’t yet have information on how the incident occurred and who carried it out,” added Kurtulmus.
Although ISIS takes the spotlight by regularly claiming suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad, Shiite militias and other armed groups are also active in the Iraqi capital.
“Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is trying to reform a governing system he says is riddled with graft and incompetence, accused ‘corrupt and organized criminals’ of Wednesday’s kidnappings,” Reuters reports, “but [he] did not finger a particular group or specify the Turkish abductees.”