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HOSTAGES FREED

Rebels fire rockets at Baghdad hotels

BAGHDAD -- Guerrillas using a makeshift launcher fired rockets into the heart of Baghdad yesterday, shaking the capital and hitting two hotel compounds frequented by foreigners.

American forces also clashed with insurgents in the northern city of Beji, killing two and wounding a third.

In the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, a US Marine was killed yesterday and a second died of wounds suffered in an engagement the previous day, the military said. At least 853 US service members have died since the war began in March 2003, according to the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, kidnappers freed three hostages -- one Pakistani and two Turks whose employer agreed to quit doing business with the US military, officials said.

In Baghdad, guerrillas launched at least three separate rocket strikes but caused little serious damage. In one attack, insurgents parked a van fitted with a shoddy rocket launcher near Firdous Square, where US forces helped Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.

One rocket fired from the van slammed into the Sheraton Hotel, frequented by foreign journalists and security contractors, but caused only minor damage.

A second rocket hit a car parked in the compound of the Baghdad Hotel, also used by foreigners.

The launcher fell over when a third round misfired, destroying the van instead and sending black smoke wafting over a blue domed mosque.

The Karbala Brigades, a previously unknown militant group, claimed responsibility for attacking the Sheraton in a videotaped message sent to the Al-Jazeera television station.

A bystander, Ahmed Khayar Abbas, said he saw the van approach. "A group of people got off and left. Then, it exploded," he said.

The US military said the attackers were trying to hit the nearby Green Zone, a heavily guarded stretch of territory along the Tigris River that is home to the US Embassy and key offices of Iraq's new government.

A statue in Wathik Square was also hit by a rocket. Another hit near the Indonesian Embassy but didn't explode, police said.

A strike in western Baghdad's Yarmouk neighborhood hit the front gate of the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters, blowing out windows and wounding a guard, the US military said.

The attacks were the latest in an insurgent campaign that has continued despite Monday's handover of sovereignty from the former US occupation authority and the public appearance of Saddam and other former regime members before an Iraqi court on Thursday.

In Beji, five insurgents attacked a US First Infantry Division patrol with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, Major Neal O'Brien said. The patrol returned fire, killing one of the attackers and wounding another, he said.

Later yesterday, about dozen insurgents fired on US troops at a police station in Beji, 120 miles north of Baghdad. A gun battle ensued and soldiers killed one insurgent firing from a nearby rooftop, O'Brien said.

The two Turks who were freed had been missing since June 1. They included Soner Sercali, an air conditioning repairman, and his coworker Murat Kizil. The Turkish Embassy said no ransom was paid.

The kidnappers freed the men after their employer, Kayteks, issued a statement promising to stop working in Iraq.

Pakistani hostage Amjad Hafeez was freed by insurgents who had threatened to behead him unless Pakistan's president closed Pakistan's embassy in Iraq and ordered all his countrymen home.

Also yesterday, thousands of Shi'ite Muslims chanted "Saddam must be executed" following prayer services, while Sunnis generally ignored his court appearance -- underscoring how differently each community views Saddam Hussein and his legacy.

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