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Germany

Questions Arise About Keeping Employees Safe Abroad

After the kidnapping in Iraq of two German engineers employed by the firm Cryotec, the company's management has come under criticism. It was irresponsible of them, some say, to send their employees into Iraq.

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It's difficult for some firms to assess the risk of sending employees to danger spots

The fate of the two engineers is still uncertain and worries are growing among family members and co-workers at Cryotec, based near Leipzig. There has been an outpouring of sympathy in the population and at the Nikolai Church in Leipzig, special prayers are to held for the two during Sunday services.

At the same time, criticism is being increasingly directed at Cryotec's CEO, Peter Bienert.

"Those who sent these two technicians over there and had them working without protection carry a lot of the responsibility," said Gernot Erler, Germany's deputy foreign minister, in an interview. The one-time intelligence services coordinator and current Christian Democratic parliamentarian, Bernd Schmidbauer, raised serious accusations against Cryotec's management.

"Even the best business deal cannot belie that fact that two co-workers were sent into enormous danger," he said in an interview with DW-TV.

Warning against "hasty discussion"

Cryotec has not made any public comments and in a statement, CEO Bienert asked for understanding about the company's silence, saying that any information released could damage the work of the government crisis team trying to secure the engineers' release.

Peter Bienert Crytec Entführung Irak

Peter Bienert, head of Cryotec

According to Cryotec, the two men travelled to Iraq to work on the transfer of a facility which generates nitrogen for chemical processes.

Saxony's Christian Democratic Premier George Milbrandt has warned against playing the blame game too quickly regarding Cryotec's responsibility for the men's kidnapping.

"It's the wrong time to throw around such questions," he said on Thursday, adding that the security of the missing men should not be endangered.

Experience doesn't always help

Still, the question remains about the criteria companies use in deciding whether to send employees into high-risk countries like Iraq. Cryotec was active in Iraq long before Saddam Hussein was toppled and has very good contacts with people on the ground there.

The company, which has 15 employees, is active around the world and has participated in projects under the UN-sponsored "Oil for Food" program since 2000. Two projects were completed in 2004 and a processor for making medical oxygen was delivered to an Iraqi hospital in 2005.

Sächsische Ingenieure im Irak entführt - Rene Bräunlich

Rene Bräunlich, one of the two men kidnapped

The two engineers who were sent to Iraq had a great deal of trust in their boss. One of them, 31-year-old Rene Bräunlich, had been in the country before and had already worked on projects in other dangerous nations, such as Sudan.

According to Helmut Harff, head of the committee for security issues at the Germany's largest industrial association, BDI, Cryotec did not make any mistakes. In an interview with DW-WORLD, he rejected the criticism of Cryotec as "unfounded statements of opinion." According to him, the final decision whether or not to send employees to dangerous regions rests with the company. That is the case, he said, even though BDI adheres to the travel warnings posted by the German foreign ministry.

"Travel advisories are not legally binding," he said.

Big firms and security

But Berthold Stoppelkamp, head of the Working Group for Economic Security (ASW), is of another opinion, saying that no Germans should be sent to Iraq since the current situation is too dangerous.

Krisenstab des Auswärtigen Amts - Steinmeier und Scharioth

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left, at a crisis team meeting

"If (Cryotec) dispensed with bodyguards, they were not providing the protection that would have been needed in this case," he told DW-WORLD, adding that he did not want to make a final judgment until all the facts were in.

His group is calling especially on small and medium-sized companies to take security issues very seriously when employees are sent abroad.

"Our experience show that most have no security plan whatsoever," Stoppelkamp said. "We see time and time again that economic arguments are given priority over security concerns." He would not comment, however, on whether Cryotec made a mistake in this particular case.

Larger firms, on the other hand, tend to take security issues into consideration, he added. Employees are often given training with external security consultants, behavioural experts and psychologists before they are sent abroad.

"The firms often have special security departments that make assessments of the level of danger in a region to which employees might be sent," he said.

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