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March 31, 2005

Lebanonwire

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Romania under shock after bizarre kidnapping in Iraq

By Dan Stoeneccu
Special to Lebanonwire

z41_kidnapped_romanians.jpg (15216 bytes)Romania is in a state of shock after the Qatar-based TV station Al Jazeera aired a tape showing the three Romanian journalists who disappeared in Baghdad on Monday, March 28. The tape shows the three Romanians and a fourth person, sitting on the floor with two men pointing guns at them. According to Al Jazeera, the journalists were held by an unknown group that had made no demands. The journalists are Marie Jeanne Ion and cameraman Sorin Dumitru Miscoci of Prima TV and Ovidiu Ohanesian of Romania Libera daily newspaper.

The irony is that the three Romanians were seized during a visit by Romanian President Traian Basescu to coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Romania has about 500 soldiers in Afghanistan and has sent 800 troops to join the US-led coalition in Iraq. The fate of the kidnapped journalists is aggravated by the fact that Romanian president Traian Basescu had officially stated in Baghdad that Romania was not going to withdraw from Iraq.

Romanians are under shock since the three kidnapped persons were known journalists. The entire Romanian society is waiting for them to be freed. Their colleagues from the press organized vigils in the cities of Sibiu, Caiova and Buzau. Moreover the Romanian national soccer team before the Wednesday game with Macedonia displayed a huge banner with the sign: "Free them!"

Meanwhile, the Romanian press is full of suppositions and scenarios linking the kidnapping with influential politicians, the Romanian-Arab business community, and even former the KGB. The supposed connections go as far as Baghdad and Damascus.

The kidnapping of Romanian journalists and negotiations meant to set them free are unusual and very bizarre. While Romanian officials are unspoken and the secret services are keeping a low profile, Omar Hayssam, a Romanian-Syrian businessman, under criminal investigation, is claiming that the abductors contacted him to ask for a $ 4 million ransom. Hayssam is the one who sponsored the journalists' trip to Iraq and he has connections in the new Iraqi government. He is member of the former governing Romanian leftist party, PSD (the Social-Democrat Party), friend of former president Iliescu, just as he is the business partner of the father of one of the journalists missing in Iraq.

According to the daily newspaper ZIUA, Romanian president Traian Basescu and his policy on the Black Sea region are the target of the kidnapping. While well-known investigation journalist Eduard Ovidiu Ohanesian is collateral target since working for "Romania libera", he unveiled a thorough network of foreign agents infiltrated in the Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service that are also connected to ex KGB structures in order to undermine Romania's pro-American foreign policy.

Like many other East and Central European countries grateful to Washington for its help in overthrowing communism, Romania is a strong U.S. ally that has staunchly supported the war in Iraq. As a NATO member Romania provided logistical support and troops in Iraq but also in other hot spots such as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Bosnia. Together with neighboring Bulgaria, Romania is eager to host permanent U.S. military bases at the Black Sea, in spite of the fact that over half of the population opposes the war in Iraq.

Even if eventually the abductors will release the hostages for ransom, it is clear that their action was punishment for the Romanian participation in the occupation of Iraq. The kidnapping of Romanians in Iraq brought the issue of terrorism in the forefront of a national debate regarding Romania's involvement abroad. In spite of the population's opposition to the war, the kidnappings appeared to cause no immediate political backlash for Romania's involvement in Iraq.

Dan Stoenescu is a foreign affairs correspondent for several major newspapers in Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Moved by the kidnapping in Iraq of three Romanian journalsist, Mr. Stoenescu wrote theis piece for LEBANONWIRE. He can be reached at dstoenescu@iom.int

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