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Iraq: Desert Travel Is Not For The Faint Of Heart

Journalists, aid workers, and diplomats are attacked and robbed on Iraqi roadways on a nearly daily basis. With no reliable bank services in the war-torn country, many foreigners are forced to travel with large amounts of cash and no way to defend themselves. With insecurity the only certainty in Iraq, a thief with a fast car and machine guns has become the king of the road. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite recently returned from a two-month stint in Iraq, and spoke to a Portuguese journalist who was robbed on his way from Kuwait to the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah.

Baghdad, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- They thought they had taken every possible precaution -- traveling in a convoy and in daylight hours.

But that wasn't enough to keep a group of Portuguese journalists from falling prey in mid-November to the roadside crime that has grown rampant in Iraq in the months following the U.S. invasion.

The journalists were making the 50-kilometer trip from Kuwait to Al-Basrah when their convoy was attacked by a group of armed thugs.

Rui Do O, a cameraman with a private Portuguese TV station, says the journalists had taken the added precaution of stripping the vehicles of their Kuwaiti license plates. Even so, they made it just 20 kilometers into Iraq before they came under attack.

"Suddenly, our colleagues who were driving behind us came up alongside us and were making signs with their hands, like a pistol," he said. "And then they overtook us and there was a black BMW driving right after the last car. And the black BMW overtook us as well, and then they blocked the road. When they were overtaking us I saw a guy with a pistol in his hand and I realized right away what was happening."

Two of the cars in the convoy managed to elude their pursuers. Do O said his vehicle tried to make a U-turn and escape, but that their Toyota Jeep was no match for the BMW.

"We were trying to escape in the middle of the [road], but the BMW was really fast and it was always behind us. At that time I was looking in the [rearview] mirror and I realized that there was not only a black BMW but a white Chevrolet behind us."

The cameraman said the passengers in the Chevrolet brandished Kalashnikov machine guns and began firing.

"We only heard 'pooh-pooh-pooh!' -- the sound of the bullets entering the car," he continued. "At that time we already realized we couldn't escape. But suddenly the girl that was behind us, in the back seat, said 'I've been hit.' And then we decided, 'Well, we have to stop.'"

The journalists stopped their vehicle, and the Chevrolet and the BMW parked on either side. The assailants dragged the driver, radio journalist Carlos Raleiras, from the Jeep and pushed him into the BMW.

Do O stumbled from the vehicle with his wounded colleague, television reporter Maria Joao Ruela. One of the assailants mumbled an apology. But that did not prevent the attackers from abandoning the two journalists, hijacking the Jeep -- along with money, documents, and camera equipment -- and making a quick getaway with Raleiras still in the back of the BMW.

Do O said he was able to wave down a passing car and get a ride to an Iraqi police station, where officers then took the journalists to the nearest medical center to treat Ruela's injuries. The cameraman said he was desperate to find a way to get Ruela and himself to the British military base in Al-Basrah.

"Nobody spoke English, and I was always telling them that I need to go to a British base. I was always trying to tell them. I even used some words in Arabic to tell them to go to the British base. They were a little bit confused. They didn't know how to act, I think. Then they decided to take me to the British."

British troops took Ruela to the Al-Basrah base where she underwent surgery for her injuries.

Raleiras, meanwhile, faced a struggle of his own. He spent several days in the captivity of his kidnappers, who demanded a ransom of $50,000 for the journalist's release.

At one point, Raleiras was able to contact a Portuguese news agency by phone. He said: "I have been kidnapped. The situation is very complicated. I cannot talk. I am using my radio. I have to hang up."

After several days, Raleiras was unexpectedly released with no ransom being paid. The journalist, who was unharmed, speculated the group became frightened after British troops tracked down and arrested their ringleader.

Raleiras was set free in the desert near a small village. He knocked at the door of the first house he came to. The Iraqi family quickly recognized him from pictures that had already been aired on Al-Jazeera and other satellite TV channels. They gave him food and shelter and he was eventually transported to the British military base in Al-Basrah.