Russia Offers to Evacuate 800 in Iraq

APIraqis guarding the Russian Embassy in Baghdad. The embassy said workers wishing to stay in Iraq must sign a statement.
Moscow offered Wednesday to airlift more than 800 Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics out of Iraq after eight Russian and Ukrainian workers were briefly kidnapped in Baghdad. But Itar-Tass said the scale of the pullout depended on the companies involved, some of which looked hesitant to put contracts worth an estimated $1 billion at risk.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said it will send planes Thursday and Friday to evacuate employees of Russian companies in Iraq -- 553 Russians and 263 others -- via Baghdad and Kuwait.

The move came two days after eight employees of Interenergoservis, which is building a power plant in Baghdad, were kidnapped by armed gunmen and held for 19 hours.

Interenergoservis head Alexander Rybinsky said after the ministry's announcement the company remained uncertain over how many of its 300 people in Iraq would leave. Other Russian contractors in Iraq appeared to have similar doubts.

Itar-Tass quoted a source in Moscow as saying the companies would ask staff in Iraq during the day whether they wished to remain or leave.

"If the majority prefers to stay, there will be no evacuation," the source said. "If most specialists decide to leave Iraq, then the entire staff will leave. Russian companies may suffer losses, but human life is more precious."

On Tuesday, the released hostages -- three Russians and five Ukrainians -- said the gunmen freed them after discovering they belonged to a company from Russia, which opposes the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

"We see no hostility here," one hostage said in televised comments. "We are not planning to leave."

Russian news agencies quoted diplomats in Baghdad as saying that any Russian worker wishing to continue working in Iraq will have to submit a written statement.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said it will advise nationals working for Russian firms to leave if Moscow decides to evacuate its staff.