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Iraqi insurgents behead two Iraqis purported to be intelligence agents

CAIRO, Egypt — A videotape that was posted Wednesday on an Islamic Web site showed militants affiliated with wanted Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis purported to be intelligence officers.

In other abductions, two Lebanese were freed Wednesday after more than three weeks in captivity in Iraq, and a French politician said the government has restored indirect contact with kidnappers holding two French journalists hostage in Iraq since late August.

The 10-minute videotape showed two captives, Fadhel Ibrahim and Firas Imeil, identifying themselves as Iraqi National Intelligence officers and saying they were captured in Baghdad's Haifa Street on Sept. 28.

The tape showed four masked gunmen standing behind Ibrahim and then Imeil, with one militant describing the blindfolded captives as "criminals."

There was no way to immediately verify the authenticity of the tape, which was released in the name of the Brigades of Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, a militant group affiliated to al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad organization.

Al-Zarqawi's group has kidnapped and beheaded numerous foreigners — including three Americans — in attacks aimed at driving foreigners out of Iraq.

The militant speaking in the tape mentioned the recent U.S.-led attacks against militants in the Iraqi city of Samarra and appeared to acknowledge a setback for insurgents in the city.

"Let America and those behind it know that what had happened in Samarra was a mere labor pain," the militant said, adding that "war has its ups and downs." U.S. and Iraqi troops claimed success earlier this month when they swept into Samarra, an insurgent stronghold northwest of Baghdad.

"It is a disgrace that such a criminal is considered as a member of our nation," the militant said. Then two other masked men held down Ibrahim and a third severed the captive's head with a knife before holding it up to the camera.

Imeil, who said he joined the Iraqi intelligence services four months ago and attended a training course in Jordan, was killed in identical fashion.

Before being beheaded, both victims advised fellow Iraqis working in the intelligence, police, national guard and other services to quit their jobs and "repent to God."

More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the insurgency began after the U.S.-led overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Some kidnappers seek ransom money, but others have political objectives such as the withdrawal of foreign companies or troops serving in the U.S.-led multinational force.

Two Lebanese Travel agency employees — Charbel Karam Haj and Aram Nalbandian — were released unharmed on Wednesday, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity. It was unclear if any ransom had been paid.

They were kidnapped by armed men on Sept. 18 as they were driving along a highway between Baghdad and the western city of Fallujah.

The men were kidnapped with another Lebanese man, Fadi Munir Yassin, and their Iraqi driver, Ahmed Mirza. Yassin was quietly released later, but no details have emerged on the fate of the driver.

Three other Lebanese are known to still be held hostage in Iraq. Hundreds of Lebanese, mainly construction workers and industrialists, went to Iraq looking for opportunities in the massive postwar reconstruction and several Lebanese businessmen and truck drivers have been kidnapped.

All Lebanese hostages have been released unharmed except for Hussein Ali Alyan, a 26-year-old Lebanese construction worker found shot dead June 12.

Meanwhile, a French politician said "it appears that indirect contact" has been established between the French government and kidnappers holding journalists Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot.

Marie-George Buffet, a Communist party leader, made the comments after Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin briefed lawmakers about the status of efforts to free the hostages.

Chesnot and Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 20 in Iraq, along with their Syrian driver.

On Oct. 5, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said that the kidnappers were ready to release the hostages and negotiations appeared to be in their final stages when contacts were abruptly cut off. Barnier accused lawmaker Didier Julia, who had embarked on a separate mission to to free the hostages, of compromising the government's indirect contacts with the captors.