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Insurgents Clash with Iraqi Security in Baquba, 13 Dead - 2004-07-25

Iraqi security forces, backed by U.S. troops, killed at least 13 insurgents during intense fighting northeast of Baghdad. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, say they are optimistic about the chances of winning the release of several hostages.

The firefight between the insurgents and Iraqi security forces began during a U.S.-led raid of a farm area northeast of Baghdad, near the town of Baquba.

Iraqi national guardsmen and police came under fire from insurgents who launched mortars and fired rocket-propelled grenades. A chase then developed with the insurgents firing small arms, while trying to get away.

But, with U.S. air cover and artillery fire, Iraqi forces were able to surround the insurgents, and when the battle was over more than a dozen militants had been killed.

A senior official with Iraq's Interior Ministry said the battle was an example of how Iraqi security forces and coalition troops are increasingly working in coordination to battle the insurgency in Iraq.

In the meantime, interior ministry officials say negotiations are continuing in an effort to secure the release of numerous hostages kidnapped during the past several days, including seven truck drivers, an Egyptian diplomat, and the head of an Iraqi-owned contracting firm.

Iraqi officials say the seven truck drivers - three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian - were visited by a neutral party, and were reported to be in good health. Officials also say they are optimistic they will be able to secure the safe release of the hostages. A senior Iraqi official described the negotiations as "moving forward in a positive way."

While visiting Syria Saturday, Iraq's prime minister, Iyad Allawi, called for all nations not to give in to the demands of kidnappers, saying to do so would only lead to more kidnappings.

More than 50 hostages have been taken by kidnappers since April. Several have been beheaded, while others were released following secret negotiations.

Last week, the Philippine government gave in to the demands of hostage takers by removing its peacekeeping contingent a month earlier than planned. In return, the kidnappers released Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz. Since then, at least nine people have been kidnapped.

The kidnappers have used several methods to take their hostages. Truck drivers are often stopped by roadblocks set up by the insurgents, who then commandeer their vehicles. A recent kidnapping involved a roadblock set up by militants dressed in Iraqi police uniforms.