An Al Qaeda-led insurgent group said in a Web statement Wednesday that it has decided to kill four kidnapped Russian Embassy staffers after a deadline for meeting its demands passed.
The statement, which did not say whether the decision has been carried out, came a day after the group claimed responsibility for killing two abducted U.S. soldiers whose bodies were found south of Baghdad.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry called on the kidnappers to spare the four Russians' lives. "We once again strongly urge (them) not to take an irreparable step and preserve the lives of our people," spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said.
He said Russia "has never and nowhere waged a war against Islam."
The Mujahedeen Shura Council said Moscow failed to meet its demands for a full withdrawal of troops from the war-torn region of Chechnya and that a 48-hour deadline set in a statement issued Monday had run out.
"Therefore, the Islamic court of the Mujahedeen Shura Council decided to implement God's law sentencing them (the four Russians) to death," the group said in a statement on an Islamic militant Web site where it often posts its messages. The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed.
The Shura Council is a grouping of seven Iraqi insurgent groups, most prominent among them al-Qaida in Iraq.
The statement did not state that the Russians were killed. The four embassy workers were abducted on June 3 in an attack on their car in which a fifth Russian was killed. The captives include the embassy's third secretary, Fyodor Zaitsev, and three other staffers, Rinat Agliulin, Anatoly Smirnov and Oleg Fedoseyev. The Foreign Ministry said Agliulin was Muslim.
The slaying of the two American soldiers was the first act of violence claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq since its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a June 3 airstrike on June 3. A Shura Council statement Tuesday said al-Qaida in Iraq's new leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, beheaded the two Americans.
The claims may aim to show that Al Qaeda in Iraq remains strong and will continue in the path laid down by al-Zarqawi, who masterminded kidnappings and killings of Westerners in Iraq -- beheading two Americans with his own hand -- as well as a bloody campaign of suicide bombings.
His hostage victims included Egypt's top diplomat in Iraq and two senior Algerian diplomats, part of a campaign to prevent Arab nations from sending ambassadors in support of the new Iraqi government.
The targeting of Russians in the kidnapping was unusual, since Moscow opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, winning it favor in the eyes of some Sunni Arabs, who now form the backbone of the insurgency.
But memories of that stance may be fading three years on -- and many Islamic militants despise Russia for its military campaigns in the southern Muslim republic of Chechnya, seen by radicals as a battleground for jihad, or holy war.
The Shura Council claimed responsibility for the abduction of the four Russians in a statement Monday, giving Moscow 48 hours to pull out of Chechnya and release Islamic militants from its prisons. It produced no photos or videos of the men to prove it was holding them.
In Wednesday's statement, the council said the Russian government "did not respond to our conditions for releasing its diplomats and gave no value to its citizens, only calling for their release while continuing its war against Islam and its people. "
It said the decision to kill the four came "in revenge for our brothers everywhere with whose blood the Russians' hands have been stained" and would be "an example for those who might follow them and dare to defy the mujahedeen (holy warriors)."