BAGHDAD, Iraq – Kidnappers have released up to 19 foreigners taken hostage in Iraq, according to an Iraqi official and a Chinese news agency.
The latest release was announced Monday afternoon. The Xinhua News Agency (search) reported that seven Chinese men abducted by gunmen in central Iraq had been released.
The government report, citing a Chinese merchant in the Iraqi capital, said those abducted were in the care of a group called the Association of Islamic Clerics.
Xinhau gave no other details.
Earlier Monday, a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council (search) said that 12 foreign hostages had been freed.
Meanwhile, two U.S. troops and seven employees of American contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root (search) were missing following an attack "two days ago" on a convoy near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search) said Monday. He refused to say whether they had been abducted.
More than 40 foreigners from at least 13 countries — including a Mississippi man whose fate also was unclear — have been kidnapped in recent days by insurgents.
In an interview with the Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera (search), Governing Council member Mohsen Abdul-Hamid did not identify the nationalities of the hostages he said were released or where they were.
"Twelve foreign hostages have been released today and we hope that the rest of the hostages will be released soon," said Abdul-Hamid, a Sunni Muslim, who is also the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Earlier, Muthanna Harith, spokesman for Islamic Clerics Committee, said insurgents have released nine hostages of various nationalities, including Turks and Pakistanis. It was not clear if he and Abdul-Hamid were referring to the same hostages.
The nine were truck drivers for military supply convoys, which have come under heavy attack in recent days by gunmen on the western and southern outskirts of Baghdad.
Eight of the nine freed hostages appeared in a video broadcast Sunday on Al-Jazeera. The eight included two Turks, three Pakistanis, a Nepalese, a Filipino and an Indian. The identity of the ninth hostage was not immediately known.
Last week, eight South Korean missionaries also were released or escaped.
"We believe that nine were released last night or today," Harith said.
He said he had no word on three Japanese civilians still being held.
In Tokyo, optimism faded that the Japanese hostages would be released quickly after a top government spokesman suggested authorities were no longer confident of their safety.
Vice President Dick Cheney, in Tokyo on a weeklong Asia tour, promised Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi the United States would "do everything we can to be of assistance."
The Japanese hostages — two aid workers and a photojournalist — were being held by a previously unknown group calling itself the "Mujahedeen Brigades," which demanded Japan pull its troops out of Iraq within three days or it would burn the three alive.
The deadline came and went with no word on their fate.
"At one point we were able to make the judgment from various perspectives that they (the Japanese) were safe, but now that's unconfirmed," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference.
His comments came in sharp contrast to official remarks Sunday indicating the three were about to be freed. Japanese media even reported that the military was getting transport planes ready to bring them home.
The American, Thomas Hamill (search), 43, a truck driver for a U.S. contractor in Iraq, was seized Friday by gunmen who attacked a fuel convoy. His captors threatened to kill him unless U.S. troops ended their assault on the city of Fallujah. The deadline passed Sunday with no word on his fate.
For the Japanese hostages' families, the uncertainty was taking its toll.
"The anxiety is overwhelming," said Takashi Imai, the father of the youngest of the three hostages, 18-year-old Naoki Imai. "I know the troops are in Iraq to make a contribution — but so is our son. They can't just let him be killed."
Imai, who graduated from high school last month, is a member of a group trying to raise awareness about the health hazards facing civilians in Iraq from depleted uranium munitions used by U.S. troops. Another hostage, Nahoko Takato, 34, worked with street children in the war-ravaged country. The third hostage is a freelance photojournalist.
Koizumi has staunchly refused to consider the withdrawal, a position lauded by Cheney.
"We wholeheartedly support the position the prime minister has taken with respect to the question of the Japanese hostages," Cheney told reporters Monday.
Despite Japan's refusal to withdraw from Iraq, officials said Sunday night that they had received word the hostages would be released unharmed.
Fukuda on Monday acknowledged the government had no evidence that was true.
"We haven't been able to confirm what kind of situation the three hostages are in," he said.
The crisis has swelled into Koizumi's biggest test since he assumed office three years ago.
Despite a deeply divided public, Koizumi championed the plan to send about 1,000 non-combat troops to help in the reconstruction of Iraq in this country's biggest and most dangerous overseas military operation since World War II.
The troops began arriving in the southeastern Iraq city of Samawah in January to carry out water purification projects and to assist in the rebuilding of schools and other infrastructure.
China's top diplomat in Iraq, Sun Bigan, said he had contacted its interior minister and Governing Council and appealed for "all necessary measures" to have the hostages released.