"The Americans struck last night and three bodies were brought out from the wreckage," said police chief Colonel Muhammad Fadil on Thursday. 

Twenty-one cars were burnt or damaged in the air strikes, he added. US forces sealed off the city, including the crucial bridge over the Tigris.

The US military confirmed fighting around Samarra on Wednesday evening when their troops were ambushed from a mosque. 

"A 1st Infantry Division patrol was attacked September 22 by anti-Iraqi forces with small arms fire and mortar fire from a mosque in Samarra at approximately 5pm (1300 GMT)," the military said, using its term for fighters. 

Under fire

The patrol also came under fire from a nearby building and
attack helicopters fired off missiles, but fighters continued to shoot at them. Finally aircraft dropped a bomb on the building, the military added. 

"The Americans struck last night and three bodies were brought out from the wreckage"

Colonel Muhammad Fadil,
Samarra police chief

It was the latest in a string of incidents since US troops returned to the city on 9 September after a three-month absence, following a deal with local leaders. 

The agreement brokered by the Iraqi Government allowed US forces to patrol the city and start spending money on reconstruction projects in Samarra. 

It was viewed as taking Samarra away from the brink of a major US assault to reclaim it from fighters who had turned the city into a no-go zone for the Americans.

Hostages' status

Meanwhile, Italian embassy officials in Baghdad could not confirm the authenticity of a statement on a website claiming that two Italian aid workers kidnapped two weeks ago had been killed. 

Pari and Torretta  were snatched
from their office in Baghdad

"We are evaluating the new statement. At the moment, we cannot say whether it is true or false," an official said on condition of anonymity. 

A group calling itself the Jihad Organisation said on Thursday in a statement on the internet that it had "slaughtered" the two hostages. 

The statement was posted on a website seldom used to make such claims. 

Italian news agency ANSA said Italian intelligence services
believed the internet site which posted the execution claim was not very reliable. 

An armed group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organisation
in Iraq had demanded that staunch US ally Italy withdraw its 3000 troops stationed in Iraq, or the two Italians would be killed.

Simon Pari and Simona Torretta were snatched from their office in a quiet neighbourhood of Baghdad on 7 September.

French TV pulls out  
 
French state-owned television network France 3 said on Thursday it would stop sending journalists to Iraq because of security concerns, becoming the second French network in two days to suspend operations there.   

The abduction of journalists is a 
major cause for security concern

On Wednesday the country's top commercial network TF1 said it had stopped sending news teams to Iraq.
 
The announcements came as Paris pursued efforts to secure the release of Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot, Le Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot and their Syrian driver, who were abducted in Iraq on 20 August.
  
France 2, another state-owned television network, will maintain its presence in Iraq for the time being, according to the station's deputy director general in charge of news, Arlette Chabot.
  
"We want to be present in Baghdad as long as the French journalists and their Syrian driver are being held hostage," Chabot told Europe 1 radio, while acknowledging that working conditions were "really very difficult".

Unrest

In separate developments, three Iraqis were killed near Khan Dhari district in Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad during a US search operation, a medical source in Abu Ghraib hospital told Aljazeera.  

The forces launched the search operation after an explosive device targeting a US patrol detonated there, the source added. 

Also on Thursday, Sana Yusif, deputy manager of the Northern Oil Company in Mosul, was killed when unknown armed men opened fire at his vehicle in the city's Baladiyat neighbourhood in the morning. 

And in Miqdadiya town, northeast of Baghdad, five Iraqis, including three policemen, were injured when an explosive device went off. The blast occurred when an Iraqi police patrol passed through the area, sources said.