The group holding three Japanese hostages said in a statement broadcast on an Arab TV station on Thursday that the main targets of abduction would be Americans and nationals of other occupation forces in Iraq.

   

Saraya al-Mujahidin delivered the message in a handwritten letter given to a French journalist the group freed on Wednesday. The journalist, Alex Jourdanov, was released three days after being seized near Baghdad, after the group made sure he did "not represent the American occupation". France opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq.

    

"The first targets of kidnappings by armed Iraqis should be Americans or nationals of countries participating in the occupation, secondly supporters of the occupation and thirdly those participating in or aiding the occupation," Dubai-based Al-Arabiya channel quoted the letter as saying.

 

More Japanese kidnapped   

 

Meanwhile, two more Japanese civilians have been kidnapped in Iraq in addition to the three taken hostage last week, Japanese media said on Thursday.

 

A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the government was still trying to confirm the media reports, which said a Japanese non-governmental organisation had received an e-mail saying two Japanese had been kidnapped near Baghdad.

 

The two new Japanese hostages were tentatively identified by Kyodo news agency as freelance journalists Jumpei Yasuda and Nobutaka Watanabe.

 

"The first targets of kidnappings by armed Iraqis should be Americans or nationals of countries participating in the occupation…"

Saraya al-Mujahidin

The latest abductions come after three Japanese civilians were taken hostage last week and threatened with murder unless Japan did not withdraw its troops from Iraq. Their fate remains unclear.

 

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has vowed not to pull out Japanese troops taking part in a non-combat mission in southern Iraq.

 

Russian evacuation

   

Russia, alarmed at the wave of kidnappings, has started to evacuate former Soviet citizens from Iraq on Thursday.

  

"A first group of between 150 and 200 people left aboard a plane this morning at 7:00 am (0300 GMT) heading to Moscow," said diplomat Dimitri Iline.

  

Five Ukrainians and three Russians were held hostage for around 24 hours earlier this week before being released without harm.

  

US-led occupation officials have said around 40 foreigners are being detained by Iraqi fighters who are demanding the withdrawal of international troops from the country.