Asiacell shuts offices in Iraq's Mosul after attacks-sources

Thu May 10, 2012 9:07am EDT

* Company targeted by bomb attacks and extortion threats

* Mosul is regional hub for al Qaeda affiliates

By Jamal al-Badrani

MOSUL, Iraq, May 10 (Reuters) - Mobile phone operator Asiacell has closed its offices in the Iraqi city of Mosul, an al Qaeda stronghold, after attacks and threats by militants, security officials and employees said this week.

Police sources said the firm had suffered bomb attacks on its facilities, assassination attempts against employees and extortion demands.

Asiacell, a unit of Qatar Telecommunications, is one of three main mobile operators in Iraq.

"The security forces have tried hard to eradicate terrorism and we have discussed the militant attacks with the company manager," Mehdi al-Gharrawi, Mosul police chief, told Reuters.

He said police had arrested a number of people for the Asiacell incidents, but said the attacks had forced the firm to close its offices about a month ago.

A spokesman for the company would not confirm the closures, citing safety concerns for its staff.

"Asiacell maintains a substantial presence in Mosul as it does throughout Iraq but, for obvious security reasons, will not comment on the specific location of its personnel at any time," he said.

PROTECTION RACKETS

A bomb exploded in a restaurant a few metres from Asiacell's main office in Mosul in April, police said, wounding four people. Minutes later, police arrested a man in the same area wearing a suicide vest packed with explosives.

Militants bombed a building housing Asiacell equipment near Mosul in February, damaging its network and knocking out the service in some northern parts of the country.

Asiacell chief executive, Diar Ahmed, said at the time that he suspected Iraq's al Qaeda-affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, was behind the attack.

Two employees of Asiacell in Mosul confirmed the office closure to Reuters, saying the company had asked them to stay at home because of "security threats".

Protection rackets are now the main source of funding for militants in Iraq, who spend millions on weapons, safe houses, vehicles and bribes to buy freedom for detained leaders.

In Mosul alone, intelligence officials say militants rake in $6-7 million a month from extortion.

Officials say Mosul has become a hub for al Qaeda affiliates. The city is carved up into fortified neighbourhoods, protected by concrete walls and heavily manned checkpoints.

Violence has ebbed since the height of Iraq's war, security is still a major worry for foreign investors in a country that needs development in almost every industry from petroleum to infrastructure. (Writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Barry Malone and Andrew Roche)

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