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Three Turkish hostages believed killed

French editor sees progress on two captive reporters

BAGHDAD -- A Paris newspaper editor said there had been positive movement in the effort to free two captive French journalists yesterday, 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.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was cautiously optimistic.

''According to the indications which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health, and are being well-treated," he said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan.

De Belot said the opposition group favors the release of the hostages.

''That is an extremely positive point," he said. ''But 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."

The French effort to win the releases became urgent after a deadline passed for Paris to revoke a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools, which went into effect yesterday.

A militant group calling itself The Islamic Army of Iraq said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France lift its ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools, but the government refused.

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, they 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 has acknowledged 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 yesterday by the State Department. ''Let's remember who is causing this trouble. It's not the United States. It's not the coalition forces that are there."

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.

In the other kidnap case yesterday, pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera reported that it had received a video from a militant group in Iraq linked to Al Qaeda 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 believed to be 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 were of the men in the video.

In other developments yesterday:

*Iraqi national guards killed seven militants south of Baghdad yesterday 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 US 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. US troops quickly arrived to put out the fire and secure the area.

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