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Bulgaria hostages 'alive in Iraq'

Al-Jazeera broadcast video of what it said was the Bulgarian hostage.
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(CNN) -- Two Bulgarian hostages may still be alive, according to an Iraqi police chief, despite reports that one of them had been executed by Iraqi militants.

Bulgarian government spokesman Dimitri Tsonev said Wednesday the only evidence that the men had been killed was a report by an Arabic-language news network.

But General Mohammed Khairi Barhawi, the police chief of the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, later said sources confirmed the two hostages are still alive and are "somewhere in Mosul province."

Al-Jazeera reported Tuesday that it had received two videotapes, one showing the execution of the Bulgarian hostage and the other containing a message from an Egyptian hostage also being held in Iraq.

The broadcaster said the Unification and Jihad group claimed responsibility for the killing.

The group, which claims loyalty to insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also took responsibility for beheading U.S. businessman Nicholas Berg and South Korean translator Kim Sun-il.

The United States has branded the Jordanian militant its top target in Iraq, saying he is behind much of the violence in the country.

Al-Jazeera aired part of the videotape, showing a man in an orange shirt kneeling in front of three masked men dressed in black. It did not broadcast the execution.

The network said the group had also threatened to kill the other hostage by 2000 GMT on Wednesday if female prisoners in Iraq were not released.

But the Bulgarian government said it would not back down despite the threat. "There is no change in Bulgaria's policy on Iraq at this moment. We are not considering withdrawing our troops," spokesman Dimitar Tsonev told Reuters.

Bulgaria, a new member of NATO, has 470 troops based in the central Iraq city of Karbala, according to the news agency.

"Bulgaria must continue to support Iraq and its reconstruction, stabilisation and democratic development," said a joint statement by Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg and parliament.

"The battle to defend universal values against fanaticism requires consistency, courage and stamina," it added.

Philippine pullout

Meanwhile, the Philippines has begun pulling its troops out of Iraq, a move seemingly being made to satisfy demands by kidnappers of a Filipino hostage. (Full story)

Eight of the 51 Philippine humanitarian troops in Iraq have already left the country, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Delia Albert said early Wednesday.

And in Baghdad, Karima Sharaf, head of the Egyptian delegation, demanded the release of an Egyptian truck driver -- Mohammed al-Gharabawi -- also being held hostage by militants. Sharaf said Islam does not sanction taking hostages.

Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape showing al-Gharabawi appealing to truck drivers in Saudi Arabia -- where he worked -- not to go to Iraq.

On the tape, the captors said they would kill the hostage if his Saudi employer did not leave Iraq within 72 hours.

CNN's Jane Arraf, Jamie McIntyre and Maria Ressa contributed to this report.

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