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Seven Chinese abducted in Iraq released

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BEIJING (AP) - Gunmen released seven Chinese men in central Iraq Monday, a day after seizing them amid a wave of abductions of foreigners, the Chinese government said.

The men "were safe now,'' the government's Xinhua News Agency said, citing China's chief diplomat in Iraq, Sun Bigan.

Citing a Chinese merchant in Baghdad, Xinhua said the men were in the care of a group called the Association of Islamic Clerics in "a secret place.''

Two of the men were injured in an accident while the rest were in good condition, Xinhua said without giving details.

Arab language TV Al-Jazeera broadcast footage showing the Chinese hostages and showing a Chinese Embassy official thanking the Association of Islamic clerics for securing their release. A spokesman for the association, Abdel Salam al-Kobeisi, said that the kidnappers dropped the hostages in front of a mosque in Baghdad.

Just before 10 p.m., Al-Kobeisi told al-Jazeera, he received a call from the gate of his mosque, saying that the Chinese were at the door Al-Jazeera said a letter sent with the group identified the kidnappers as "Abou Obeida al-Jarah Brigade.''

" Those (kidnappers) have came across not as terrorists, and not as followers of such or such regime, but as the sons of Iraq, who are defending their popular resistance in Fallujah,'' al-Kobeisi said.

China's Foreign Ministry said the seven men entered Iraq from Jordan on Sunday and were taken hostage later in the day in the city of Fallujah, which has been the scene of fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents. State television said they were stopped en route to Baghdad.

The announcement of the men's release came on the eve of a visit to China by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, whose trip was expected to focus on Iraq.

China had appealed to Iraqi authorities to help rescue the men. The government also warned Chinese nationals to avoid Iraq and called on those already there to increase their security and stay in touch with Chinese diplomats.

China hasn't contributed any troops to the U.S.-led military force in Iraq and it wasn't clear why the seven were there. But Xinhua described them as villagers who went to the Middle East on their own from a Chinese region with a tradition of sending migrants abroad to work.

State television said they didn't work for China's government or a state company.

Iraqi gunmen have also abducted other foreign nationals, including three Japanese civilians seized by a group threatening to burn them alive if Japan does not withdraw its non-combat troops from Iraq. Sunday's deadline came and went with no word on their fate.

Before the U.S.-led attack that ousted Saddam Hussein, China had called for a "political solution'' instead of war. Beijing, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, had described relations with Saddam's government as warm. More recently, Beijing has advocated sending a U.N. team back to Iraq to help restore stability.

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