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Iraqi anti-corruption activists released after kidnapping

Seven students were freed after being abducted by unidentified armed men in central Baghdad on Monday morning
Protest against corruption in central Baghdad, 7 April (AFP)

Seven young Iraqi anti-corruption activists were released on Tuesday, a day after being kidnapped by armed men in central Baghdad, the interior ministry said.

"The seven young men returned to their families unharmed after sustained efforts by the interior minister and a special team managed to secure their release," ministry adviser Wahab al-Taee said in a statement.

He did not elaborate on the identity of the kidnappers nor the circumstances of their release, which also took place in central Baghdad, close to where they were abducted less than 48 hours earlier.

The interior ministry had confirmed their kidnapping earlier on Tuesday.

"Unidentified gunmen in SUVs abducted seven university students early Monday morning," a ministry official told AFP.

Jassem al-Helfi, a leading figure of the anti-graft demonstrations that have been taking place almost weekly for around two years, said the seven were abducted at 1:30 am local time.

"An armed gang kidnapped seven students who are active in peaceful protests from their apartment in Battaween," he said.

Helfi later on Tuesday confirmed the group's release, but did not provide further details on the incident.

The students' profile and the kidnappers' modus operandi, however, suggest that the motivations were political.

"These young people stood up against corruption and the system of sectarian quotas in politics and in favour of a technocratic government," Helfi said.

He saw the kidnapping as "an attack on freedom of expression and a move aimed at instilling fear in the population and snuffing out the protest movement".

"But this is a national cause and it will not be silenced... Such acts will only increase the determination of the demonstrators," he said.

Almost every week, thousands of protesters have gathered in Baghdad, usually a few blocks from where the kidnapping took place, and across cities in southern Iraq for anti-corruption rallies.

Supporters of the mercurial Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr form the bulk of the protesters, but the movement also includes prominent artists as well as activists affiliated with the communist party, among others.

Their main demands are tougher measures against corruption, reform of the electoral law and a new government run by technocrats instead of party political leaders and their cronies, whom they blame for much of the country's woes.