Militants freed eight Chinese hostages after claiming Beijing agreed to a blanket travel ban for Iraq, while the Iraqi defense minister threatened yesterday to arrest a prominent local politician.
The hostage saga and political drama unfolded with eight days to national elections and came after a pair of car bombs in the vicinity of Baghdad killed at least 15 in a direct assault on Iraq's Shiite majority.
Official news agency Xinhua quoted the Chinese embassy in Iraq as saying the eight men had been released, confirming an earlier report by al-Arabiya television, which showed video of a hooded man -- presumably one of the captors -- shaking hands with each of the Chinese.
The Dubai-based satellite channel also broadcast a statement read by one of the captors.
"The Chinese government showed its good intentions with the publication of a presidential decree banning Chinese citizens from entering Iraq and the Movement of the Islamic Resistance Nuamaan Brigades decided to release the eight prisoners to confirm the friendly relations between the two countries," the statement said, referring to the name adopted by the group.
"We would also like to insist on the good treatment accorded to the prisoners who did not undergo any suffering during their detention. We would also like to say that there was no bargaining or ransom paid for their release," he said.
The kidnappers previously said they would spare the lives of the men if Beijing issued a travel ban for the war-ravaged country.
The Chinese foreign ministry said late Friday that it had already warned its citizens to stay out of Iraq and pointed out the men had been leaving the country.
Ahead of Iraq's landmark elections, a French journalist and a Brazilian national have also disappeared, but no one has stepped forward to shed light on their fate.
Controversy brewed ahead of the Jan. 30 polls as defense chief Hazem al-Shaalan said Saturday the Baghdad government would shortly arrest one time Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi for slandering the ministry.
"We will arrest him and hand him to the Interpol ... He sought to tarnish [the image] of the defense ministry and ... the reputation of the defense minister," Shaalan told Qatar-based al-Jazeera television.
Shaalan's comments put an unwanted spotlight on the financial dealings of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government, raising questions about the government's conduct.