Editor - French hostages handed to opposition group

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A Paris newspaper editor said there had been positive movement in the effort to free two captive French journalists Thursday, while a separate militant group said it had killed three Turkish captives.

The kidnappers in Iraq have handed over the pair to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group, Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said on France-Info radio.

But he stressed that their status wasn't completely clear. "We must be prudent in this kind of mixed-up situation because we know well that until the good news arrives, we can't let ourselves be absolutely reassured."

Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. In the past week, militants have killed an Italian journalist and 12 Nepalese workers, while seven truckers from India, Kenya and Egypt were released after their employer paid a $500,000 ransom.

Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Thursday that the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the insurgency here, but said the United States would "not become faint of heart" in enforcing its Iraq policy.

"What we have to do is to defeat this insurgency," Powell said in an interview Wednesday with Panama's TVN Channel 2. A text was released Thursday by the State Department. "Let's remember who at is causing this trouble. It's not the United States. It's not the coalition forces that are there."

But he conceded that "it is clear we did not expect an insurgency that would be this strong."

The Defense Department announced this week that the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.

French Muslim envoys had earlier expressed optimism that Chesnot and Malbrunot would be freed after meeting with leaders of an influential Sunni clerical organization with alleged ties to insurgents at a Baghdad mosque.

"There are much more reasons to trust in a serene, very positive outcome of the situation rather than the contrary," Abdallah Zekri of the Paris Mosque said after the session.

Using France's formidable diplomatic clout in the region, President Jacques Chirac has made good on a pledge to spare no effort to save the lives of the journalists.

In Amman, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier discussed the situation with Jordanian officials Thursday, pursuing a furious round of diplomacy that has taken him to Egypt and Qatar. Media reports in France said a top hostage specialist, Gen. Philippe Rondot, and a team of secret agents were on the ground in Iraq developing contacts with the captors.

Rondot, a Middle East specialist, helped in the capture in Sudan a decade ago of the Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, now serving a life sentence in France for three murders, and took part in efforts that freed French hostages in Lebanon.

France has won massive support from leaders throughout the Arab world, cashing in on Paris' strong backing for the Palestinians and its anti-war stance in Iraq.

Despite opposition among France's sizeable Muslim community, Paris' effort to rein in Islamic fundamentalism with the ban on Islamic head scarves in schools passed its first test Thursday, with 240 girls showing up for the first day of class with their heads covered -- five times less than last year, the Education Ministry said

But Muslim girls were under extra pressure to comply to avoid deepening the hostage crisis.

In the other kidnap case Thursday, pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera reported that it had received a video from a militant group in Iraq linked to al-Qaida showing the slaying of three Turkish hostages.

The station said it had a statement claiming responsibility from Tawhid and Jihad, a group linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant held responsible for a string of bombings, kidnappings and other attacks in Iraq.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry in Ankara and the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad both said they had no information on the fate of the men.

Al-Jazeera broadcast a segment of the video that showed the three Turkish men sitting on the floor with three masked men, two of them armed, standing behind them. It did not broadcast any footage showing the killings, nor did it say how the three were killed.

"The time of forgiveness has gone. You have nothing left but killing and beheading," said a brief printed statement in Arabic from the captors, which Al-Jazeera showed on its screen.

The video coincided with the discovery by Iraqi police of the bodies of two Turkish citizens and an unidentified man at a rural farm in northern Iraq. It could not immediately be confirmed whether the bodies belonged to the men in the video.

In other developments Thursday:

-- Iraqi national guards killed seven militants south of Baghdad on Thursday in clashes that also left seven guardsmen injured, an Interior Ministry official said.

-- Gunmen shot dead a police major in the southern city of Basra as he walked through a market in the city center, officials said.

-- Two civilians were killed and another 12 injured by crossfire during clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, police said.

-- Two people were killed in a roadside bomb explosion about 45 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, police said.

-- In downtown Baghdad, an insurgent threw a hand grenade at a passing police vehicle, injuring one officer and setting the car ablaze. U.S. troops quickly arrived to put out the fire and secure the area.