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PARIS - An insurgent coalition led by Al-Qaeda's Iraq branch claimed responsibility Monday for the abduction of two US soldiers and four Russian diplomats in Iraq, in statements posted on the Internet.

The Mujahedeen Shura (consultative) Council, which groups eight armed factions led by Al-Qaeda, gave the Russian government a 48-hour ultimatum to pull out of Chechnya and free Chechen prisoners or "take the consequences".

In a separate statement, whose authenticity likewise could not be verified, the insurgent alliance said that "your brethren in the military wing of the Mujahedeen Shura Council abducted the two American soldiers near Yusifiyah."

The two soldiers went missing after they came under attack at a traffic control point near the town of Yusifiyah, south of Baghdad, on Friday. Another soldier died in the attack.

The US military named the missing soldiers as Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Thomas L. Tucker, 25.

The claim followed the killing of Al-Qaeda's Iraq frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a US air strike on June 7 that the militant network vowed to avenge.

The council scoffed at "the army of the most powerful country in the world" for returning empty-handed and "shamed" after launching a search operation for the missing soldiers.

But the group did not explain the circumstances of the purported abduction, saying details would be released "in the coming days".

The US military said Monday that seven US servicemen were wounded in a search operation involving more than 8,000 troops hunting for the two soldiers since Friday night.

"God enabled the lions of unification to capture four Russian diplomats in Iraq and kill a fifth," the Mujahedeen Shura Council said in the other statement.

It said the council's Islamic court had decided to give the Russian government 48 hours to "withdraw immediately from Chechnya" and "release all our brothers and sisters detained in Russian prisons".

The Russian diplomats were abducted on June 3 when unidentified gunmen attacked the vehicle in which they were travelling in the upscale west Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour.

One Russian diplomat was killed in the attack and the other four abducted.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesman told AFP that Moscow was "checking" the abduction claim, while a crisis cell set up by the ministry said it had no immediate information.

Russia has withheld comment on Zarqawi's killing, a silence seen in Moscow as an attempt to safeguard the lives of the four Russian hostages.

"We know in advance that there will be appeals ... to release those (hostages) under the pretext that Russia took a clear stand in rejecting the (US-led) war on Iraq," the Mujahedeen Shura Council said.

The response is that "we fight the enemies of God in order to establish God's rule on earth ... and every Muslim ... is our brother," the statement said.

It accused the Russian government of "killing and displacing ... our people in Chechnya and Afghanistan" and of "sending its diplomats to Iraq to support the crusader enterprise led by America" and "confer legitimacy" on the US-backed Iraqi government.

The dead Russian man has been named as Vitaly Titov. The four missing are Fyodor Zaytsev, Rinat Aglyulin, Anatoly Smirnov and Oleg Fedosseyev.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has told the Russian parliament that "the Russian foreign ministry and our special forces are doing all they can to find out what has become of" the diplomats.

The claim of responsibility came two days after Chechnya's pro-Russian leaders claimed to have "decapitated" the rebel movement by killing its self-styled "president".

The rebels named as his successor a hardline veteran fighter who rejects any compromise with Moscow.

06/19/2006 15:31 GMT

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