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Remains of 13 athletes kidnapped last year found

6/16/2007 - Olympics

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.