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Iraq Insurgents Release Chinese Hostages

Violence continues to mount ahead of 30 January elections 22 January 2005 -- The Chinese Embassy in Baghdad has confirmed that eight Chinese men held hostage in Iraq have been released. The captors had threatened to kill the men unless Beijing banned Chinese nationals from entering Iraq.

China later warned its citizens to avoid travel to Iraq.

The confirmation of the men's release came after a video showed an unidentified masked man apparently setting them free. The news comes amid violence elsewhere in Iraq, including a deadly bombing at a Shiite wedding party.

The amateur video shows the eight Chinese men kneeling in the desert and holding their passports open for the camera. A masked man then shakes hands with each of them, as a voiceover explains why they are being released.

"The eight Chinese hostages are being freed after China advised its citizens not to travel to Iraq, and they were unharmed and the Chinese government had not paid a ransom for their release," the voice said in Arabic.

A few hours later, there was further confirmation from China Central Television: "Al-Arabiyah television station reported [today] that the eight Chinese were freed and handed to the Committee of Muslim Scholars. Al-Jazeera and the BBC both reported the news. China's Embassy in Baghdad confirmed this news."

China said the men had been working at a factory and were seized as they were leaving the country.

Insurgents have kidnapped more than 100 foreigners over the past year; around a third have been killed.Insurgents are also waging a campaign of suicide attacks and ambushes ahead of Iraq's elections on 30 January.

Shi'ites, long the oppressed majority in Iraq, are expected to take power in the election, which Sunni Muslim extremists have vowed to disrupt.

The latest attack struck a Shi'a wedding party south of Baghdad yesterday. Witnesses said the bomber drove an ambulance filled with explosives towards the tent where the wedding was being held. He blew up the vehicle, killing at least 11 people.

Just hours earlier, a suicide car bomber killed 14 Shi'ite worshippers as they left a Baghdad mosque. Officials say the violence is an attempt by insurgents to spark civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis.

In other violence, a group beheaded an Iraqi soldier in broad daylight in the western rebel town of Al-Ramadi yesterday.

Also, the group led by Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi posted a video on the Internet showing the beheading of two Iraqi men who worked at a U.S. base.

[For news, background, and analysis on Iraq's historic 30 January elections, see RFE/RL's webpage "Iraq Votes 2005".]

[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]

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