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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A militant group said Wednesday it had taken six more hostages -- three Indians, two Kenyans and an Egyptian -- and would behead them if their countries did not immediately announce the withdrawal of their citizens from Iraq. The U.S. death toll since the start of the war rose to 900 when a roadside bomb killed a soldier.
The seizure of the hostages came a day after a Filipino truck driver was released in exchange for Manila's withdrawal of its 51-member troop contingent -- a move criticized by Washington and other allies as encouraging more abductions.
Those fears seemed to be realized with the new kidnappings.
In a statement given to The Associated Press, the group, calling itself "The Holders of the Black Banners," said it had abducted the six truckers and would behead one of them every 72 hours starting at 8 p.m. (noon EDT) Wednesday if their nations did not pull out of Iraq and the company they work for did not close its branch here.
"We have warned all the countries, companies, businessmen and truck drivers that those who deal with American cowboy occupiers will be targeted by the fires of the Mujahedeen," the statement said. "Here you are once again transporting, goods, weapons and military equipment that backs the U.S. Army."
None of the countries are part of the 160,000-member coalition force in Iraq, however Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appealed last week to India and Egypt to join the coalition and send troops.
More than 60 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq in recent months.
Also Wednesday, U.S. allies Poland, Japan and Bulgaria rejected threats of new attacks by militants if they don't pull their troops out of Iraq.
In violence Wednesday, a car bomb went off in eastern Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding one, witnesses said.
New clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents in a residential area near the city of Ramadi killed five Iraqis and wounded 17 others, said Dr. Mohammed Ali of Ramadi emergency hospital. Some of the casualties occurred when a U.S. military helicopter attacked a building in the area near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The U.S. death toll as counted by The Associated Press reached 900 with the report by Maj. Neal O'Brien of the 1st Infantry Division, who said the bomb killed the American soldier shortly after midnight during a patrol in a Bradley fighting vehicle in Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad.
On Tuesday, the military said two U.S. Marines and two U.S. soldiers were killed in Anbar Province, a Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad. The Marines were killed in separate incidents while conducting "security operations"; one soldier was killed Monday, and a second died Monday of wounds.
Counts of the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq vary, with some already exceeding the 900 figure. The Pentagon's latest casualty update, released Tuesday before the five deaths, put the death toll at 893 service members, plus two civilian Defense Department employees.
The number of U.S. casualties has dropped considerably from its high point in April, when 135 troops were killed during the worst outbreak of anti-coalition violence since the end of major hostilities May 1, 2003. The drop in casualties to pre-April levels followed a Marine pullout from the city of Fallujah -- the scene of heavy fighting -- and a series of informal cease fires with Shiite militants who had fought U.S. forces in Baghdad and across central and southern Iraq.
But violent attacks have continued to rise against Iraqi officials and police, whom insurgents view as collaborators with U.S. forces.
A member of Baghdad's provincial council, Sabeeh al-Ka'abi, was injured in an assassination attempt, and was in a stable condition, according to an official at Ibn al-Nafis Hospital, where al-Ka'abi was taken.
A roadside bomb hit an Iraqi police patrol early Wednesday in the Gharnata district of Kirkuk in the country's north, killing one policeman and injuring another, said police official Salhat Kadr.
Also Wednesday, Lt. Col. Ahmed Mahmoud, the chief of the police force that guards the electricity infrastructure in Diyala Province, was wounded along with three other police in a roadside bomb attack on their car, said 1st Lt. Ahmed Sadiq of nearby Baqouba police.
In photos provided to AP with the statement, six of the hostages are shown standing behind three seated, masked gunmen. One of the hostages holds a paper with the typed names of seven men -- presumably six of them were the hostages -- their nationalities, passport numbers and the registration numbers of the trucks they were driving. The paper is stamped July 20 and the words "Universal Services" were handwritten on top.
The names on the paper were Ibrahim Khamis from Kenya, Salm Faiz Khamis from Kenya, Jalal Awadh from Kenya, Antaryami, from India, Tilak Raj, from India, Sukdev Singh, from India, and Mohammed Ali Sanad, from Egypt. It was not clear which of the Kenyans listed on the paper was not among the hostages.
From the statement, the trucking company that employed the men appeared to be based in Kuwait.
Freed Filipino hostage Angelo dela Cruz was reunited Wednesday with his family in the United Arab Emirates, where he will undergo medical checks after his more than two weeks in captivity.
The United States and other coalition allies had criticized Manila for agreeing to withdraw its contingent to save dela Cruz's life.
The same group that kidnapped dela Cruz, the Khaled bin al-Waleed Corps, took aim at Japan. In a Web site posting, the group said it was the military wing of Tawhid and Jihad, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
"To the government of Japan: Do what the Philippines has done. By God, nobody will protect you and we are not going to tolerate anybody," said a statement signed by the group. "Lines of cars laden with explosives are awaiting you; we will not stop, God willing."
A Foreign Ministry official in Japan said Tokyo would not withdraw its 500 troops, sent here for medical and reconstruction duty. Japan refused in April to withdraw after three Japanese were kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents. They were released unharmed.
Likewise, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said his country "will not give in to the terrorists' pressure. We will resist."
Meeting the demands to pull out Bulgaria's 480-member infantry battalion would encourage more terrorist acts, Parvanov said in Berlin.
In Warsaw, Prime Minister Marek Belka said Poland would not consider bringing home its 2,400 troops from Iraq in light of the new threat.
"The decision by the Philippines government only increases the danger for others," Belka said. "It is a very clear example of how when you bow in to the pressure of terrorists you increase the danger to others."
Poland is required by a U.N. resolution to remain in Iraq until the end of 2005, but Polish leaders haven't determined what role their country will play after that.
The authenticity of the latest militants' statement could not be determined.
An online statement Wednesday from a previously un known group that identified itself as al-Qaida's European branch contained threats to carry out deadly attacks in Bulgaria and Poland if the two countries don't withdraw from Iraq.
The statement, signed by the Tawhid Islamic Group, appeared on an Islamic Web site known as a clearinghouse for al-Qaida and groups linked to the terror network. The group identified itself as "al-Qaida in Europe." The authenticity of the statement and the group could not be verified.
The group said Bulgaria and Poland will "pay the price" just like the United States and Spain did, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Madrid train bombings in March.
"To the crusader Bulgarian government, which is allying itself with the Americans, and to the Bulgarian people, we demand, for the last time, that you withdraw Bulgarian troops out of Iraq or we swear we will turn Bulgaria into pools of blood if you don't comply," it said.
Two Bulgarian truck drivers have been taken hostage in Iraq. One of them was reported killed but his body has not been found. A headless corpse in an orange jumpsuit was subsequently found floating in the Tigris River, but it has not been identified.
The group's statement also warned Belka: "Pull your troops out of Iraq or you will hear the sounds of explosions that will hit your country, at the time we choose."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)