Gunmen kidnapped 42 male university students near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday, police said, in one of the biggest mass abductions since the US-led invasion in 2003.
A police spokesman for Nineveh province, where Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, lies, said the gunmen had stopped two buses in the village of Al Jirin.
"One of the buses managed to flee. The second bus was stopped and 42 male students were seized," said spokesman Khalid Abdul-Sattar.
No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion will fall on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which has regrouped in northern provinces after being pushed out of western Anbar province and Baghdad by a series of military offensives.
The police spokesman said three students on the bus that escaped were wounded. The kidnappers loaded all the males from the second bus onto trucks but left behind three female students.
"We have information that the kidnappers took the trucks to the village of Al Jarradi," the spokesman said. "Our forces are deployed there and searching for them."
The buses were taking students to university in Mosul, police said, where classes were due to restart after a weekend break.
Abductions, including occasional mass kidnappings, have been rampant during Iraq's descent into violence after the US-led invasion in 2003.
In November 2006 kidnappers snatched scores of people from the Higher Education Ministry and many are still officially missing. The following month gunmen seized about 30 Iraqis, mainly Red Crescent employees, in Baghdad. Most were released.
Militant groups have carried out kidnappings for political purposes, while criminal gangs have abducted people for ransom.
The US military says Mosul is al Qaeda's last major urban stronghold in the country.
The Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Farraj Rahho, was kidnapped on February 29 by gunmen who killed his driver and two guards. The archbishop's body was found two weeks later despite appeals for his freedom from Pope Benedict.
In a separate incident in Baghdad on Sunday, five people were killed and 17 wounded in clashes between US soldiers and gunmen in a Shia stronghold, Iraqi police said.
The US military said a helicopter air strike had killed nine "criminals" in the Sadr City slum, but it was not aware of any gun battles there. It gave no more details.
Police said the operation started early on Sunday and some fighting reached the outskirts of densely populated Sadr City, home to 2 million people in East Baghdad.
Sadr City is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. Security forces fought gun battles with the Mahdi Army in Sadr City late last month, part of clashes that killed hundreds of people in the capital and across southern Iraq.
Women and children were among the wounded, police said. They said US forces cordoned off parts of the district, including police stations, and prevented police from using radios. Some police in Sadr City are accused of sympathising with militias.
The fighting follows a call by Iraq's leaders from all parties to disband their militias before provincial elections this year, an apparent attempt to isolate the populist Sadr.
The political council of national security, comprising the president, the two vice-presidents, the prime minister and the heads of political blocs in parliament, issued a 15-point statement at a late night news conference on Saturday.
A key demand was for all parties and political blocs to dissolve their militias immediately and hand in their weapons. The statement did not mention any militias by name, but Sadr appeared to be the target. (Reuters)
Gunmen kidnap 42 students in Iraq