Britain has not handed out any money to kidnap gangs, the paper said on Monday, basing its report on "documents seen by The Times".

The list of payments has also been seen by Western diplomats, who are angered at the behaviour of the three governments and say that it encourages organised crime gangs to grab more foreign captives, the paper said.

An envoy in Baghdad was quoted as saying: "In theory we stand together in not rewarding kidnappers, but in practice it seems some administrations have parted with cash and so it puts other foreign nationals at risk from gangs who are confident that some governments do pay."

Several other governments, including Jordan, Romania, Sweden and Turkey, were also said to have paid for their hostages to be freed, along with some US companies with lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Britain has never paid to free its citizens, but it is understood to have paid intermediaries "expenses" for their efforts to make contact with the kidnappers, The Times reported.

Biggest givers

France, Italy and Germany have all publicly denied paying any  ransom money. "But according to the documents, held by security officials in Baghdad who have played a crucial role in hostage negotiations, sums from $2.5 million to $10 million per person have been paid over the past 21 months," the paper said.

According to the report, France paid out a combined $25 million for the release of Georges Malbrunot in December 2004 and Florence Aubenas in June 2005.

France has denied the allegations. "As the French authorities indicated when the hostages were freed, there was no ransom paid," Jean-Baptiste Mattei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday.

France reportedly paid $25m for
the release of its citizens

Italy handed over $11 million for the freedom of Simona Pari, Simona Torretta and Giuliana Sgrena in 2004 and 2005, again according to the report, while Germany was said to have given kidnappers $8 million to secure the release of three hostages, including Rene Braeunlich and Thomas Nitzschke, who were freed earlier this month.

The Italian daily Repubblica cited an official report according  to which Rome handed over several million dollars in ransom for Iraq hostages.

Germany's national broadcaster, ARD, earlier reported that a  $10 million ransom had been paid out for Braeunlich and  Nitzschke, a claim the government in Berlin has consistently  denied.

Britain paid out no money to the kidnappers of Britons Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan, both of whom were killed after being seized in late 2004, but British authorities were criticised for allowing the kidnappers of fellow Briton Norman Kember to flee before his rescue in March.