Russia has begun evacuating its citizens and those of other former Soviet states from Iraq, following the kidnapping of five Ukrainians and three Russians there.

The first planes took off from Moscow's Ramenskyoe airfield early Thursday morning. Their task: To begin evacuating all employees of Russian firms who want to get out of Iraq.

More than 800 Russian and other employees from former Soviet states are in Iraq working under contract for Russian companies. Moscow is now advising all of them to pull out because of the recent increase in violence there.

Following the abduction of eight employees of the Russian firm Interenergoservis on Monday, President Vladimir Putin's Security Council urged all Russians to withdraw from Iraq.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been more cautious. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Mr. Lavrov says the evacuation of Russian nationals from Iraq is voluntary, but he, too, warns that staying on could be dangerous.

The foreign minister reiterated Russia's stand that the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq was a mistake and has renewed calls for the United Nations to play the central role in settling the problems there.

Russia's evacuation efforts are expected to take two days.

Media reports estimate Russian contracts in Iraq are worth up to $1 billion.

One of the state-owned companies evacuating its workers is Technopromexport. The firm's chairman, Sergei Molazhavui, told Russia's NTV news channel that it has evacuated its 370 employees, but he added that pulling out of Iraq could mean job losses for the company.

He says six to eight people will be sent to Jordan to open an office and monitor the situation from there and that all the others will go back to Moscow. But he adds that some people will be fired. Of course, we are expecting certain help from the government, he says. We don't need money - we need jobs for our people.

Russia has said it will not be evacuating its embassy staff from Baghdad and has emphasized that Moscow, a long-time friend of Baghdad, is not pulling out of the country for good.