A spokesman for the foreign ministry told reporters on Friday their diplomats security is guaranteed.

"We do not plan to reduce the number of staff in our embassy in Baghdad. We can guarantee their security," spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said.

But he warned Russian companies operating in the strife-torn nation that neither Moscow nor the US-led occupation forces could safeguard their employees.

"But those (contract workers) who stay there, we cannot guarantee their personal safety, and neither can the coalition forces. Every company has to make its own choice on whether to pull out or not," the official said.

The first three Russian planes evacuating former Soviet citizens after a spate of hostage takings in Iraq landed in Moscow on Thursday as Russia told its nationals still in Iraq to leave.

Russian exodus

In total, some 365 energy consultants and repair workers working for the largest Russian contractor in Iraq, the Technoprom energy firm, left the country.

Around 120 Russians and other former Soviet citizens were expected to fly out on Friday, although other contract workers said they would stay and continue working in Iraq, where insurgents are reported to be holding some 40 foreigners hostage.

The evacuations followed a brief abduction this week of nine Russian and Ukrainian nationals working in Iraq for Russian energy firm Interenergoservis.

Some 553 Russians and 263 nationals of other former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Belarus, have been working in Iraq.

At a press conference Dr Muthana Harith al-Dhari, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), the highest Sunni authority in Iraq, told reporters that the ASM had been involved in assisting Russian officials in evacuating contractors.

Many of the some 550 Russians
in Iraq have now left

"We managed to evacuate 300 Russian nationals working at al-Yousfiyah Energy plant and transferred them to Baghdad after holding a farwell celebration at the plant and they are in good health. As a result the Russian Embassy thanked us for helping in evacuating its nationals to Baghdad.

"The Association of Muslim Scholars also helped in freeing another Chinese national hostage kidnapped in Iraq. The hostage has been released and turned over to the Chinese embassy in Baghdad.

In other developments:

A Danish businessman is feared kidnapped in Iraq, the Danish foreign ministry said on Friday.

"The Danish foreign ministry can confirm that a Danish citizen most probably has been withheld in Iraq," it said in a statement.

"No Iraqis or Iraqi groups have contacted Danish authorities. The foreign ministry has, in close cooperation with the family of the person concerned, contacted relevant authorities, including the (Iraqi) coalition provisional authority," it added.

Danish public broadcaster DR reported on its website that the man, whose name was not disclosed, was kidnapped near the village of al-Tadij outside Baghdad.

It said the kidnapping appeared to be "highway robbery with no political motive", but provided no source for any of its information.

DR also said that the man was a Copenhagen resident aged 30 to 35 who was in Iraq to start a company in Basra.