'Organ snatcher' fears over rash of child abductions in Turkey

Amid a wave of kidnappings in Turkey, police and government launch initiative to reassure public - but 1,700 children remain missing.

ISTANBUL // When Seyda Ugurlu, 14, a primary school student, returned home from a visit to a nearby internet cafe last weekend, he was stopped by a stranger who said he was a policeman. The man dragged the boy into a taxi and sped off.

"I will take one of you with me," the man, who carried a gun, said, according to Seyda's 15-year-old cousin, identified only by his initials, B.U.T., who was walking home with the boy after dark in Istanbul. Seyda was gone for four days before he returned to his parents on Tuesday. He told police he had fled when his captor left him alone for a short while. A suspect was arrested in connection with the kidnapping, the reports said.

Seyda was lucky. The incident in Zeytinburnu, a middle-class neighbourhood on the European side of Turkey's metropolis, is the latest case in a rising number of reported kidnappings and attempted kidnappings of children in Turkey. The phenomenon has rattled the public, as rumours of child-snatching gangs of organ traders spread and authorities struggle to deal with a growing sense of fear. About 1,700 children in the country are currently reported missing, according to Turkey's police. Seven hundred of the missing children disappeared from state-run children's homes, and at least some of them have gone back to their families without telling the police they are home, Ozer Zeyrek, the head of the security department at Turkey's central police headquarters in Ankara, said last week.

Mr Zeyrek was speaking at a news conference called to inform the public about police efforts to find missing children. In response to a question, he said police so far had no hints that an "organ mafia" was behind some of the kidnappings. But he confirmed that police were conducting investigations on that issue. Suspected cases of illegal trade in human organs are not new in Turkey. Two months ago, court proceedings in connection with the suspected sale of kidneys began in the southern city of Antalya. The main suspect told the court he had given one of his kidneys to a patient in need and received 35,000 Lira (Dh86,550) in "voluntary aid" from the patient's family in return. He said he did not know that such an arrangement was illegal. At least 18,000 patients in Turkey are waiting for a kidney transplant, according to officials.

Experts say it is unlikely that a criminal gang harvesting and selling the organs of children is behind the recent wave of kidnappings. Muzaffer Sariyer, a transplantation specialist, told the NTV news channel that medical procedures for transplantations were so complicated that any gang involved would be running a high risk of being detected. "If you take an organ from a child, you need a lot of people - how do you want to do that?"

However,, fears that a sinister organisation may be behind the kidnappings have been fuelled by reported incidents of attempted child-snatching such as a widely reported case in Mardin province in south-eastern Turkey last month. There, a man introducing himself as an official from the ministry of education, visited the village of Ozcule and told people he was going to take four girls with him for an award ceremony being organised because of their outstanding performance in school, according to news reports.

Ali Acar, one of the villagers who spoke with the visitor, told Turkish media that people in Ozcule became suspicious when the man chose four girls and then asked whether the alleged award winners had had any medical operations or previous illnesses. The man left in his car after the villagers said they were going to ask a nearby unit of security forces about the award ceremony. The suspect, identified as Mahmut O, was arrested shortly afterwards. As Mr O was brought to a prosecutor for questioning by police, relatives of the four girls and other people of the region tried to lynch him, reports said.

Meanwhile, two men tried to kidnap a nine-year-old girl in Nusaybin, a town about 80km south-east of Ozcule on Turkey's border with Syria. The girl had been playing in front of her father's workplace when she was taken into a car by the men. Police cordoned off the area immediately and started to look for the girl. She was found two hours later in an abandoned car. In Tatvan, to the north, an unknown couple walked into the newborn ward of the local hospital and took a two-day-old baby with them. While security lapses and a lack of parental supervision may be factors in some cases, the sheer number of kidnappings and attempts has shocked the country. "Our children disappear and are being kidnapped in front of our very eyes," wrote Beran Uzer, a blogger for the website of the Milliyet newspaper.

In response to the growing sense of unease, the government in Ankara announced that a special committee of officials from the interior, education, health and family ministries had been set up to improve efforts to find the missing children. The committee is to smooth co-operation between different government agencies and to create a national data bank for missing children, news reports have said.