As of Tuesday, about 40 foreign hostages from 12 countries were reported being held, with the captors demanding in many cases that governments withdraw troops from Iraq.

On Wednesday Russia said it would begin to evacuate more than 800 former Soviet citizens working for Moscow's contractors in Iraq. 

An official from the Emergencies Ministry said Moscow was planning for three planes on Thursday and another four on Friday to evacuate up to 816 people on a voluntary basis.

"It reminds me of Beirut. I'm leaving Saturday and I'm counting the days"

Tomas Alcoverro,
Spanish reporter 

Russia's top contractor in Iraq, the Technoprom energy firm, also said on Tuesday that all of its 370 employees would leave Iraq. The move came after armed men briefly kidnapped eight people working for another Russian firm in Baghdad.

But the Interenergoservis energy firm, whose employees were kidnapped this week, said most of its approximately 300 employees were likely to remain.

Interenergoservis and Technoprom, both of which are working on rebuilding power stations in Iraq, are Moscow's largest contractors to operate in the country. The total value of Russian firms' contracts is estimated at one billion dollars, according to the Kommersant daily.

Latest victim freed

One of the latest hostages, a French journalist, was released on Wednesday. Alexandre Jordanov from the CAPA television agency was kidnapped on Sunday 50km south of Baghdad, along with his cameraman Ivan Cerieix, who was later released.

French cameraman Ivan Ceriex
was released  

An AFP correspondent said Jordanov was freed and was at the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the highest Sunni authority in Iraq.

"It reminds me of Beirut. I'm leaving Saturday and I'm counting the days," said Tomas Alcoverro, a 60-year-old Spanish reporter for La Vanguardia newspaper, who covered the kidnappings of foreigners in Lebanon during the 1980s.

"It's even more complicated-the whole of Iraq has become dangerous. There is a difference between working as an independent witness in Beirut where you ran the risk of being taken hostage and staying in Baghdad as a member of a coalition's member country and therefore a prime target for abduction," said Alcoverro.

Related developments:

  • The French branch of the Red Cross said on Wednesday it had suspended its operations in Iraq because of the growing risks created by the hostage-takings. The move will suspend programmes to re-establish some networks for distributing drinking water.
  • European Commission President Romano Prodi on Wednesday described the situation in Iraq as "as bad as could be" and said everything had to be done to win the release of hostages.
  • Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said there was no question of Rome withdrawing its 3000 troops from Iraq after fighters holding four Italian civilians hostage demanded that Rome pull its troops out.
  • Japan's government is tight-lipped as the fate of three civilians-aid workers and a freelance photojournalist-remained unclear, saying too much talk could endanger the hostages' lives.
     
  • The Philippines, one of the staunchest allies of the United States, may withdraw humanitarian workers from Iraq as security conditions deteriorate, said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
  • Thailand and New Zealand have confined their troops to quarters, and said they were considering whether to bring them home early from Iraq.
  • The British government has advised against "all but the most essential travel" to Iraq.
  • Pakistan said on Wednesday it was considering a US request to contribute troops to protect the United Nations in Iraq.
  • UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan virtually ruled out sending a large UN team to Iraq "for the foreseeable future" because of the recent upsurge in violence and kidnappings.
  • In Ottawa the family of a Canadian aid worker of Syrian origin kidnapped in Iraq stepped up calls for his release and reiterated that Fadi Fadil is not an Israeli, contrary to what his captors have claimed.
  • Four bodies that may be those of US contractors missing since last week after an ambush on a fuel convoy in Iraq have been found. If confirmed, they worked for Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of US energy giant Halliburton.