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Seven hostages freed in Iraq; 5 still held

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Seven South Korean missionaries abducted by Iraqi militants were freed Thursday, but five other foreign nationals remained hostages, according to government and media sources.

The South Koreans were among at least a dozen foreigners kidnapped as fighting continued between coalition forces and Iraqi insurgents in several cities.

Three Japanese nationals and two humanitarian workers of Arab descent were still being held, according to media reports.

A video aired on the Arabic-language news channel Al-Jazeera showed the three Japanese hostages held at gunpoint and threatened with knives.

The video was delivered to Al-Jazeera with a written demand: Withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq within three days or the hostages would be burned alive.

The kidnappers said they represented a group called the Mujahedeen Squadrons.

Japan demanded the release of its citizens and denounced the hostage-taking as unforgivable.

Japan said its troops would remain in Iraq. It has more than 500 troops in the country so far as part of a humanitarian mission that will eventually number 1,000.

"Troops are there to provide humanitarian support. There is no reason the Self Defense Forces should withdraw from Iraq," said Cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

"We will do our utmost for those people to be released unharmed."

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi insisted that sending troops was not only necessary but a moral imperative to support the U.S. occupation.

Video of the three Japanese hostages showed them being manhandled, humiliated and threatened with guns and knives -- at times, the knives pressed to their throats.

The names of the three were seen on passports in news footage. They are Koriyama Soichiro, who has a press card issued in Jordan for Weekly Asahi, and Imai Noriaki -- both men. The third is Takato Nahoko, a woman.

Hong Kwang-chun -- one of the South Korean missionaries abducted -- said the group was kidnapped and held for around seven hours before being released. (Full story)

MBC, a TV station in Seoul, interviewed a woman who said she was among eight Christian pastors stopped at a checkpoint on the way to Baghdad. She said she escaped but that Iraqis took the rest of her party.

The two hostages of Arab descent have been identified as Nabil George Razzouk, 30, of Arab East Jerusalem and Fadi Fadel, 33, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen.

Fadel, an aid worker for the International Rescue Committee in Najaf, had earlier been identified as a resident of Arab East Jerusalem.

Israeli Minister Gideon Ezra said the government would try to free the two men.

"It is our obligation to free them from the clutches of evil, evil that has no boundaries," Ezra told Israeli TV.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Sameer Ahmed said his government was working to locate Fadel, who was snatched while working in the field around midnight Wednesday.

"We hope that his rescue will soon be secure," Ahmed said.

The IRC said Fadel manages a UNICEF-funded program that provides humanitarian assistance for vulnerable children and youth in southern Iraq.

Iranian television broadcast footage of the two Arab hostages, along with identifying documents, according to the Israeli media.

In the footage, a masked man said he represented a group called Ansar al-Din and that it had "prisoners from the occupation forces."

The abductions were among the latest acts of violence in Iraq as U.S.-led coalition forces battled on two fronts -- Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr elsewhere.

According to the top U.S. general in Iraq, al-Sadr's militia has taken control of parts of the cities of Kut and Najaf, south of the capital.

The cleric's Mehdi Army also is strong in Baghdad's mainly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City and in southern towns.

Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said the coalition was making strides to crush the cleric's militia throughout the country and to retake the largely Sunni city of Fallujah.

"We will not let a small group of criminals and thugs control the destiny of this country," Sanchez said at a Thursday news briefing. (Full story)

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