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Iraq Transition

Kidnapped Iraqis possibly tortured

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Gunmen who snatched about 70 men from a government research institute in Baghdad on Tuesday may have tortured some of their hostages, according to an aide to the Minister of Higher Education.

A number of media reports quoted the minister of higher education as saying on Thursday that some of the hostages were killed.

The minister of the interior, however, said no conclusive evidence -- such as dumped bodies -- has been found to indicate any killings and the ministry has not heard reports of tortured hostages.

On Wednesday Iraq's higher education minister threatened to resign, arguing he could not stay at his post if he could not protect the nation's educations. (Watch how violence imperils Iraq's education, future -- 2:17 Video)

"I have to protect my people," Abed Dhiyab al-Ajili told CNN.

Asked by CNN if he sincerely planned to go through with his resignation, he noted that in recent weeks Iraq's education establishment has become a target of sectarian attacks, and said the situation must change.

"If it will not be resolved, I will resign," he said.

He said he believes Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ordered a crackdown on those responsible and he is waiting to see what kind of action would result.

Earlier in the day, al-Maliki made an appearance at Baghdad University to show his solidarity with students and professors -- all attempting to rise above the capital's daily chaos and disruptions.

He said the government "will do all it takes to keep education going and we hope to see you graduate and join the process of building the country."

"The universities are important for the heart of society and it must remain above and distant from any quotas -- partisan and sectarian," he said in a speech.

On Tuesday, dozens of gunmen clad in old and new Iraqi National Police uniforms kidnapped people at another educational institution-- the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research/Scholarships and Cultural Relations Directorate building in central Baghdad. (Watch police investigate scene of kidnapping -- 2:01)

Al-Ajili said as of Wednesday night "around 70" employees had been freed but another 40 were still missing. He said the kidnappers also took an unknown number of people who are not employees but were in the building.

Emergency police in Baghdad have been unable to come up with more specific numbers on how many people were kidnapped. (Map)

The incident reverberated throughout Iraq because it was a sign that scientific research and the education system as a whole isn't immune to the daily sectarian and insurgent violence coursing through the society.

The incident had consequences for police. The Interior Ministry ordered the arrests and interrogations of several high-ranking police officers over their handling of security in the area.

After the incident, al-Ajili announced the closure of universities until security improves, saying he was "not ready to see more professors get killed."

Later, al-Ajili rescinded that move, and universities have opened their doors across Baghdad, even though some students didn't show up for classes Wednesday.

Support for education

Al-Maliki's message in his crisis-torn country was "enough crises."

"Let's beware of God's punishment about what we do in this country," he said.

"Let us all go to the process of building, mutual understanding, brotherhood and love away from sectarian hatred and discrimination and away from a thing that can be the base for splitting the country and tearing it apart."

Al-Maliki told the students and teachers that support for education would not waver despite the country's problems.

"Our care for education and the university and the students lives makes us give you a promise that we will do our best to solve these problems and provide the best of scientific reserve because the country, life, and the people are waiting for your efforts," al-Maliki said.

Al-Ajili said on Tuesday the kidnappers, numbering around 80, surrounded the four-story building along Nidhal Street with at least 20 vehicles, taking guards, employees and civilians captive.

According to al-Ajili, the gunmen separated the men from the women, locking the women in a room, while they loaded the men into the vehicles and made their escape.

He said he sent a letter last week to Maliki asking for better protection for universities and education buildings. He said the defense and interior ministers had rejected earlier requests for 800 university guards.

He said the guard force at the directorate numbered about 20 and there were a handful of weapons among them -- not enough to resist the abductors.

Al-Maliki said he realizes "that those who created troubles for the students are not the students themselves but the bad guys who aimed to distract the students or ruin the education process."

He indicated that better security will be in store when he said, "God bless you, the brothers; the professors and deans, everybody, and the security forces that will do a better role."

CNN's Arwa Damon, Ingrid Formanek, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Erin McLaughlin contributed to this report.


SPECIAL REPORT

• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide
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