- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Insurgents in Iraq said they released eight Chinese hostages yesterday, as an Islamic militant group said it killed 15 kidnapped Iraqi soldiers in continued violence ahead of elections set for one week from today.

Another group said it had abducted a Brazilian man, Arab satellite television Al Jazeera reported. It aired an Internet video that showed an identification card but not the hostage.

A video produced by insurgents showed the eight Chinese laborers kidnapped earlier this month standing or kneeling in the desert and holding their passports. The Chinese Embassy in Baghdad confirmed the men had been freed but, by nightfall, it said it was trying to locate them.

Iraq is facing what appears to be a new surge in kidnappings of foreigners after a decline in recent months. Yesterday, Al Jazeera broadcast a videotape in which militants said they had kidnapped a Brazilian engineer in an ambush near Beiji. The videotape did not show the hostage but displayed his identification card, listing his name as Joao Jose Vasconcelos Jr., 55.

Police said the engineer was missing after an ambush Wednesday in Beiji in which a British security guard and an Iraqi colleague were killed.

Faced with the persistent violence, the Iraqi interior minister announced further security measures for the Jan. 30 balloting, in which Iraqis will choose a new 275-member National Assembly and 18 provincial councils.

Falah al-Naqib said Baghdad’s international airport would be closed for three days starting on the eve of the balloting. The nighttime curfew in Baghdad and other cities will be extended and restrictions imposed on private vehicles to guard against car bombs, he added.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who toured the Iraqi Naval Academy in Umm Qasr in the south yesterday, has said the election will be held as scheduled, despite violence.

Underscoring the grave security challenge, the terrorist group Ansar al-Sunnah Army announced on a Web site that it had killed 15 Iraqi national guardsmen seized off a commercial bus this month in the provincial town of Hit.

Ansar al-Sunnah Army also was identified as one of the groups involved in the capture of the Brazilian contractor, along with the Mujahideen Brigades, according to the videotape that Al Jazeera broadcast.

In a sign of the insurgents’ confidence, a group beheaded an Iraqi soldier in broad daylight Friday in the restive rebel town of Ramadi. The terrorists left the body, still dressed in army fatigues, in the street with the severed head placed on the torso and a note warning other Iraqi troops to quit their jobs.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration said it was extending by two days the registration deadline for Iraqis voting abroad because of low turnout in some countries.

Meanwhile, an official at Iraq’s Defense Ministry confirmed yesterday that the ministry had transferred hundreds of millions of dollars from the Iraqi Central Bank to a financial institution in Beirut to buy weapons — but did so in a legal manner.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was responding to accusations by prominent Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi, who demanded an investigation into a decision by Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan to shift $500 million in cash to a bank account in Beirut.

The official said the money was transferred with the knowledge of the Iraqi Central Bank, the Finance Ministry and the U.S.-led multinational forces. There was no comment from coalition authorities.

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