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Russia firms split on Iraq airlift

The number of non-Iraqi nationals held in Iraq has grown to about 40.

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Russian companies are split about a planned evacuation of 800 workers from Iraq after a spate of kidnappings.

Moscow offered Wednesday to airlift out 816 Russians and citizens of ex-Soviet states working in Iraq despite the safe release of Russian and Ukrainian hostages in Baghdad.

But some of the companies involved indicated they were uncertain over whether to withdraw altogether, which would put at risk contracts estimated at about $1 billion.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote said that just over half the 553 Russians and 263 citizens from the Commonwealth of Independent States working on commercial contracts in Iraq were expected to leave -- the rest staying put for now.

News of the airlift came as the Italian and French governments worked to secure the release of their citizens held hostage among a total of around 40 foreign nationals abducted in recent days in Iraq. (Full story)

The five Ukrainians and three Russians released Tuesday after 19 hours at gunpoint were employees of contractor Inter Energo Servis (IES) building a power plant in Baghdad.

The eight were said to be in good condition. They said the hostage-takers took their money and jewelry, but gave them food and cigarettes before apologizing to them, and putting them in taxis -- though only after clarifying they had no ties to the United States.

Government chiefs in Moscow had differed over how best to ensure the safety of Russians in Iraq after the eight were kidnapped.

President Vladimir Putin's Security Council urged all Russians to pull out, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to companies themselves to decide and pledged to provide added security for those who stay, without saying how.

Russia's top contractor, Tekhnopromexport, said it would pull out its 370 employees who have been building a power plant outside Baghdad. The company not only helps provide electricity to Iraqis, but employs some 2,000 Iraqis. All of those jobs will be put on hold.

IES, which is repairing three power stations in the Baghdad area, said it would evacuate any of its 365 employees who wanted to leave.

Its head, Alexander Rybinsky, said the company was still uncertain about how many of its approximately 300 people in Iraq would choose to fly out.

"The list of people who want to leave is now being put together and it is too early to say whether the majority would want to return home," he told Reuters. "We hope to find ways to eliminate risks for those who prefer to stay."

CNN's Chilcote said that many of them would stay because the money they were earning was good. (Analysis)

'On the fence'

Russian oil company, Lukoil, has not broken ground on its planned lucrative oil field in Iraq. The company says it has a handful of consultants in the country and they did not plan to evacuate.

Chilcote said other companies were still "on the fence" and would wait to see what happened inside Iraq in the next couple of days.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry said Wednesday it would send its planes to evacuate the 816.

A ministry spokesman said seven flights would be made on Thursday and Friday from Baghdad and Kuwait, without specifying whether the departure would be compulsory.

Many Russian companies hire cheaper workers from other ex-Soviet states such as Ukraine, which like Kazakhstan and Georgia has provided troops for the occupation.

The United States initially excluded Russian companies from lucrative contracts to reconstruct Iraq, but later granted them contracts worth $1 billion, Kommersant said. No official figures on Russia's commercial stake in Iraq have been issued.

Apart from rebuilding Iraq's power network, Russian firms are also involved in the transport, oil and gas sector.

-- CNN Correspondent Ryan Chilcote contributed to this report

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