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Russia launches Iraq evacuation

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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- A Russian plane has left for Iraq to begin the evacuation of hundreds of Russian workers in Iraq after a spate of kidnappings.

An Il-62 passenger jet from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry took off from a base near Moscow early Thursday to start the two-day evacuation.

The move comes after three Russians and five Ukrainians were abducted in Iraq on Monday but released the following day.

The ministry said its plan includes the evacuation of 553 Russian citizens and 263 citizens from countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States who are working on Russian contracts at facilities in Iraq.

However, it is unclear how many of the workers will take part in the voluntary evacuation.

Seven flights were initially planned but on Thursday Moscow said only four planes would be involved in the airlift.

Some Russian companies are split about the plan, indicating they were uncertain over whether to withdraw altogether and put at risk contracts estimated at about $1 billion.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote said Wednesday that just over half the Russian and CIS contingent working on commercial contracts in Iraq were expected to leave -- the rest staying put for now.

The airlift comes as the Italian government worked to secure the release of three Italians held hostage in Iraq after another Italian man was executed by captors on Wednesday.

It was the first confirmed killing of a hostage in Iraq.

The Al-Jazeera TV network said Wednesday it received a videotape allegedly showing the killing, in which the abductors threaten to kill the remaining hostages if their demands for Italy to withdraw its troops from Iraq are not met. (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.

After apologizing to them the abductors put the eight in taxis -- though only after clarifying they had no ties to the United States.

Lure of money

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.

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

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.

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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