Remains of 13 athletes kidnapped last year found

Updated: June 16, 2007, 10:42 AM ET
Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- The remains of 13 members of an Iraqi tae kwon do team kidnapped last year have been found in western Iraq, police and hospital officials said Saturday.

The team had been driving to a training camp in neighboring Jordan in May 2006, when their convoy was stopped and all 15 athletes abducted along a road between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, in Anbar province.

Members of the Anbar Salvation Council, a group of Sunni tribal leaders who have partnered with U.S. and Iraqi officials to fight al-Qaida influence in Anbar, found the 13 bodies Friday west of Ramadi, near the main highway leading to Jordan, said Anbar police Col. Rashid Nayef. Two of the athletes remained unaccounted for.

The remains -- mostly skulls and bones entangled in tattered sports uniforms -- were transferred to Imam Ali Hospital in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City neighborhood, home to most of the athletes. A doctor there, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the bones would undergo DNA testing to determine their identities.

Relatives gathered at the hospital Saturday to mourn the victims. Women in black robes cried out while men hoisted rickety wood coffins atop minivans and cars. Plastic athletic sandals lay scattered on the ground near the bodies.

The athletes were members of a private sports club that hopes to one day send members to the Olympics.

"His dream was to represent his country in sports, but instead he was killed," said Ali Kanoun, cousin of one of the victims, Rasoul Salah.

"I tell the killers, you should point your guns at the Americans and the foreigners [fighting in Iraq] instead of hurting athletes who were representing all of Iraq, not their tribe or sect," Kanoun said by telephone from a crowd of mourners at Imam Ali Hospital.

Athletes and sports officials have increasingly become targets of threats, kidnappings and assassination attempts in Iraq, either as part of tit-for-tat violence between Shiites and Sunnis or for ransom.

Victims have included the Sunni head of one of Iraq's leading soccer clubs, an Iraqi international soccer referee, a top player on the Iraqi Olympic soccer team and a national volleyball player.

A blind Iraqi athlete and paralympics coach were kidnapped last year but later released unharmed after sports officials said their abductors determined neither man was linked to the Sunni insurgency.

Gunmen also kidnapped the chairman of Iraq's National Olympic Committee and at least 30 other officials last year, including the presidents of the tae kwon do and boxing federations, in a bold daylight raid on a sports conference in the heart of Baghdad. Iraq's national wrestling coach, a Sunni, was killed around the same time in a Shiite district of Baghdad.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press