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Aid agency halts Iraq work after kidnap

Baghdad, Oct. 20 (Reuters): One of the world's largest aid agencies, Care International, has suspended its operations in Iraq and said today it might quit altogether after its British-Iraqi country manager was kidnapped.

Margaret Hassan was abducted on a Baghdad street yesterday and later shown sitting anxiously alone in a video from her unnamed captors broadcast by an Arabic television station.

'At the moment we have suspended operations, and we will continue to pull out of the country unless we can resolve this issue,' Care International chief Geoffrey Dennis told BBC radio. 'We have a lot of people on the ground locally and I am in constant contact with them trying to get updates.'

Hassan, who has lived in Iraq for 30 years, was seized two weeks after guerrillas beheaded British engineer Kenneth Bigley as part of a campaign of kidnappings and bombings that has kept the country in chaos since last year's US-led invasion.

At least six people ' a couple and their children ' were killed in overnight US air strikes against the insurgent-held town of Falluja today. A Reuters cameraman saw the bodies being dug out of the rubble of the family home, which was destroyed in the raid.

The US military says the almost nightly strikes are carefully targeted against fighters loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a self-declared al Qaida ally who it says is hiding in Falluja, about 50 km west of Baghdad. But residents say they know nothing about Zarqawi ' some even doubt his existence ' and that the air raids regularly kill civilians and wreck homes.

A 15-year-old boy was killed in shooting yesterday near the town of Baquba, 65 km north of Baghdad, after two roadside bombs exploded near a US-police convoy. The bombs wounded two Americans and four Iraqi police, police said.

Scores of foreigners, from aid workers and engineers to fuel tanker drivers, have been kidnapped since April and at least 35 have been killed, several of them beheaded. Hassan is the eighth foreign woman to be abducted. All the others have been released unharmed.

Most international aid agencies withdrew their foreign staff after two Italian women aid workers were kidnapped in Baghdad last month and held for three weeks before being freed.

Al Jazeera television yesterday aired footage of Hassan and a close-up of her identity papers soon after her kidnapping, saying an anonymous militant group claimed to be holding her. Hassan was described as tough and smart by a close friend. 'She is one of those slender people with a spine of steel,' filmmaker Felicity Arbuthnot told the BBC. 'She stayed there through the 1991 war, the bombings last year, all the horrors of the (international) embargo.

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