BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three Japanese were freed by their captors Thursday, a day after other kidnappers executed an Italian — the first known killing of a hostage in Iraq's wave of kidnappings. One of the Japanese wept as Sunni clerics tried to comfort her after securing their release.
Shocked Italians closed ranks as their prime minister insisted he would not withdraw Italian troops from Iraq after the slaying of Fabrizio Quattrocchi (search). His captors warned they would kill three more Italians in their custody unless U.S. troops leave the country.
Meanwhile, Russia evacuated 366 workers from Iraq on the first day of a withdrawal called after the abductions of eight Russian and Ukrainian workers. The eight were kidnapped Monday and freed the next day. Russia plans to pull out a total of some 800 Russians and citizens from former Soviet republics.
The wave of abductions — at least 19 people remain unaccounted for — has sent a chill through foreigners in Iraq.
A French television journalist freed late Wednesday after four days in captivity told The Associated Press he was repeatedly interrogated by kidnappers who demanded to know if he was an Israeli spy. He proved he was French by drawing a map of France, a nation insurgents look on more favorably because it has not joined the U.S.-led coalition.
The freed Japanese hostages — two aid workers and a journalist — were handed over to Islamic clerics in Baghdad after being held for a week. They were later brought to the Japanese Embassy.
At the clerics' office, the three occasionally smiled weakly as they were served tea. Aid worker Nahoko Takato broke down in tears, and one of the clerics — wearing traditional robes and a headscarf — spoke to her gently.
In video footage of the scene, shown on the Arab television station Al-Jazeera, Takato, fellow aid worker Noriaki Imaiaid and Soichiro Koriyama appeared to be in good health.
Interviewed by Al-Jazeera, Takato and Koriyama said they want to return to Iraq despite the kidnapping.
"I will continue (aid work in Iraq)," Takato said. "I've been through many shocking events and I'm exhausted, but I still can't dislike Iraqi people."
Koriyama agreed. "It's my job to take pictures," he said.
The hostage crisis was the toughest test yet of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's (search) commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The kidnappers had threatened to kill the three if Japan did not withdraw its 500 troops from Iraq.
Tokyo said it was investigating a report that two other Japanese had been taken captive in Iraq.
The slaying of Quattrocchi was shown in a video received by Al-Jazeera, which broadcast parts of the footage showing all four captives together but not the parts showing the killing.
"They have cut short a life," Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) said. "They have not damaged our values and our commitment to peace."
Berlusconi said his government had no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. With 3,000 troops, the Italian contingent is the third largest after those from the United States and Britain.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the tape, which was shown to Italian Embassy officials.
"This boy, as the assassins were pointing the gun at him, tried to take off his hood and shouted: 'Now I'll show you how an Italian dies,"' Frattini said. "He died as a hero."
American experts are working to determine whether four bodies discovered west of Baghdad were the remains of private U.S. contractors missing since a Friday attack against their convoy.
French television journalist Alex Jordanov, who was freed Wednesday night, said Thursday that he was repeatedly interrogated by militants and moved from place to place during his four-day ordeal.
Jordanov said he was occasionally slapped, but rarely physically abused. "It was more the humiliation and the fear," he said.
Jordanov, who works for Capa Television in Paris, was kidnapped Sunday while filming an attack by Iraqi insurgents on a U.S. military convoy south of Baghdad.
After his release, Jordanov was brought to the French Embassy. He said he collapsed from exhaustion and spent his first hours as a free man staring blankly at a ceiling.
"When you are under high pressure 24/7 for four days, everything just ... comes tumbling down," said Jordanov, who appeared to be in good health.