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Turkish Troops Search for Kidnapped Westerners

September 1, 1991

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Hundreds of Turkish soldiers and police officers searched in the mountains of five southeastern provinces Sunday for five foreigners kidnapped by Kurdish guerrillas, officials said.

Armed Kurds took away the three Americans, a Briton and an Australian traveling to what they believed was the site of the biblical Noah’s ark, officials said.

The kidnapping Friday night was the second time in a month that Turkish Kurds abducted Westerners. The rebels had not previously targeted foreigners in their 7-year-old campaign for an independent state, which has claimed the lives of about 3,000 people.

Ten German tourists were kidnapped in eastern Turkey in early August and were released after a week.

Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdish Labor Party guerrilla group, said the latest abduction was aimed at underlining the rebels’ claim of sovereignty in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey.

Ocalan told the weekly magazine Nokta that tourists would be attacked if they did not get permission from his group’s offices in western Europe to travel in the region.

The five men were kidnapped by about 10 Kurdish gunmen near Elmali village in Bingol province, officials said.

Authorities said 2,500 soldiers and police officers were combing the mountainous area around Bingol and four neighboring provinces of Elazig, Mus, Tunceli and Diyarbakir.

Police released the driver of the minibus in which the Americans and the Australian were traveling after questioning him about the kidnapping. The Briton was taken from a bus, local sources said.

The minibus driver, Dilaver Avci, told the semi-official Anatolia news agency, ″The guerrillas stuck the barrels of their guns into our mouths when the foreigners refused to allow them to check their bags.″ Avci said the guerrillas allowed the foreigners to take some clothes from their suitcases.

The Americans were identified as Ronald Eldon Wyatt, Marvin T. Wilson and Richard M. Rives. Their expedition was sponsored by Noah’s Ark Found of Nashville, Tenn., an official there said.

A Turkish official identified the British man as Gareth Johns Thomas. Australian officials said the fifth man was Dr. Allen S. Roberts. Turkish authorities initially identified Roberts as Austrian.

Doug Snider, a partner in Noah’s Ark Found, said Wyatt was trying to arrange for permits to do a preliminary excavation and was working on a television special.

Wyatt claimed in 1985 that his team found Noah’s ark near Mount Ararat, where the Bible says the vessel washed up. ″It is only a matter of digging it up,″ he told The Associated Press at the time.

There have been similar claims by other U.S. expeditions.

Turkey’s government has not issued permits for expeditions on Mount Ararat the past three years for security reasons. In 1988, Kurdish guerrillas attacked foreign climbers on the mountain and burned their camping equipment.

Update hourly