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Prague, 13 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The wave of kidnappings in Iraq by suspected anti-coalition insurgents is escalating with confirmed abductions of Russian and Ukrainian workers and suspected kidnappings of civilians from the United States and the Czech Republic.

The number of missing foreigners thought to have been kidnapped in Iraq has risen to at least 16 as insurgents look for bargaining chips in their fight against the U.S.-led coalition.

The abductions have targeted civilians from countries that supported the invasion of Iraq last year, as well as from countries -- like Russia and China -- that had opposed the U.S.-led invasion.

In the latest development, news agencies are reporting the release today of five Ukrainian and three Russian employees of the Russian energy company Interenergoservic. The eight were kidnapped yesterday at their home in Baghdad.

The fate of three Japanese civilians who were seized last week by militia fighters is unknown.
In Baghdad, U.S. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said two U.S. soldiers and seven civilian employees of the U.S. firm Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) are thought to have been kidnapped or killed. That group has been missing since their convoy was attacked in Abu Ghoreib during the weekend.

KBR is a subsidiary of Halliburton, which has been contracted by the U.S. government to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and to build many of the facilities at U.S. military bases.

Yesterday, the Czech Embassy in Baghdad said three Czech journalists were feared to have been abducted while passing near Al-Fallujah on their way from Baghdad to Jordan. An Iraqi taxi driver said he was transporting the group to the Jordanian border when his car was stopped by armed men, who seized the Czechs.

Czech Ambassador to Iraq Martin Klepetko told RFE/RL today that it remains unclear whether the three were kidnapped, because no ransom demands or other notification has been received.

"We have nothing confirmed," Klepetko said. "We don't know if they were kidnapped -- though it's likely they were -- but we don't know by whom and we don't know what the conditions are for their release."

Klepetko said a team of Iraqi specialists has been sent to the area today in an attempt to determine the fate of the three journalists.

There has been no official word on the fate of three Japanese civilians -- including a journalist and two humanitarian aid workers -- who were seized last week by militia fighters from the so-called Mujahedeen Brigades.

The abductors had threatened to burn the Japanese hostages alive unless all Japanese troops were withdrawn from Iraq by yesterday afternoon. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected the demand.

Naoya Ohira is a spokesman for the families of the Japanese hostages who have been lobbying the government in Tokyo to heed the kidnappers' demands and withdraw all 550 Japanese soldiers from Iraq.

"We are still considering our options at this point," Ohira said. "The families are all very tired, out of energy and need a helping hand. But they are trying their best."

Japanese Emperor Akihito today called for the swift release of the Japanese hostages. Akihito made the call during a meeting in Tokyo with visiting U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney today pledged U.S. support for efforts to free the Japanese hostages. Cheney also praised Koizumi for refusing to cave into the hostage takers' demands.

"We think that the position of the prime minister has been the correct one," Cheney said. "That is to say that it is important that our governments not be intimidated by threats and violence or [people who] resort to this kind of action and that we not allow terrorists to change or influence the policies of our governments by virtue of these kind of acts."

Seven Chinese taken hostage on 11 April were freed yesterday.
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