French diplomats are seeking the release of two kidnapped French journalists in Iraq, after 12 Nepalese hostages were killed by their captors.

French President Jacques Chirac says his country's diplomatic efforts are focussed on trying to secure the release of two French journalists being held hostage in Iraq. Speaking during a visit to Russia, Mr. Chirac again called for their freedom.

The kidnappers have threatened to execute the two men if France does not repeal a law that bans women from wearing traditional Muslim headscarves in public schools.

Muslim clerics in France and the Middle East have condemned the abductions and urged the militants to free the French nationals.

Some French officials have expressed cautious optimism the reporters could be handed over to a Muslim cleric in Baghdad.

Another militant group holding 12 Nepalese hostages says it has killed them all. A video and photographs on an Islamist Web site shows the beheading of one hostage. A statement says the others were shot to death.

Unidentified gunmen killed the local education minister in the northern city of Kirkuk as he was headed to work. But calm prevails farther south in the holy city of Najaf, following last week's peace deal that ended an uprising by radical Shi'ite militants.

In other news, Iraq's National Guard, known as the ING, is cracking down on oil smuggling as part of the effort to revitalize the oil industry.

ING Brigadier General Fira al-Tamimi says five tankers have been detained in the southern port of Basra.

"This is part of the continuous operation by the Iraqi National Guard (ING) to stop Iraqi oil being stolen," he said. "In the last month, the ING has stopped 50 tankers, and we will continue to stop more smugglers in the future."

Iraq's legitimate oil exports have suffered from sabotage of pipelines servicing both northern and southern oil fields.

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave their Olympic athletes a rousing welcome home.

The head of Iraq's Olympic Committee, Ahmed al-Sammarrai, had nothing but praise for their effort, especially the soccer team, which finished fourth in Athens.

"The Iraqi delegation has presented Iraq in an excellent way, and that I believe gives us hope and the rest of the world the feeling that they have to support the Iraqi delegation," said Mr. al-Sammarrai.

Fans were glued to the television in the early days of the Olympic soccer playoffs as the Iraqi players defied the odds and won a berth in the semi-finals.