ANBAR, Iraq (Reuters) - Masked gunmen hijacked a bus carrying 20 police recruits in northern Iraq on Friday and took them to a remote area bordering Syria where al-Qaeda operates, police sources said.
The kidnappers, armed with machineguns and rocket propelled grenades, seized the vehicle on the road from Mosul to the capital Baghdad and took the recruits to Anbar province, said officers.
"There were 20 volunteers coming from Mosul on their way to Baghdad. They stopped in a restaurant to get lunch in Baiji and when they left, gunmen kidnapped them," said a senior police officer from the area who declined to be named.
Anbar was almost entirely controlled by al Qaeda during the height of Iraq's insurgency from 2005-07, until most of the militants were pushed out by local tribesmen and U.S. forces.
The group has kept hold of pockets of land in the rugged region, using its caves and valleys as hideouts. The Sunni Islamist organization often targets police, seeking to undermine Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.
Iraqi officials are worried militants may be gaining weapons and support from the conflict in neighboring Syria, where Islamists have joined the ranks of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
"All our checkpoints at the entrance to Anbar are on high alert to look for the (hijacked) bus," said a police source.
Almost a year since the last U.S. troops left, security is still a major challenge for Iraq. Although violence is far lower than it was several years ago, nearly 2,000 people have been killed already this year.
In March, gunmen disguised as police raided checkpoints and homes in Haditha and killed at least 27 members of the security forces. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Reporting by Kamal Naama; Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Isabel Coles and Andrew Heavens