A videotape that was posted Wednesday on Islamic Web site showed militants affiliated to wanted Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis purported to be intelligence officers.
In a separate hostage-taking incident, two Lebanese were released after more than three weeks in captivity in Iraq, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday.
Travel agency employees Charbel Karam Haj and Aram Nalbandian were freed unharmed on Wednesday, said the official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.
They were kidnapped by gunmen on Sept. 18 as they were driving along a highway between Baghdad and the western Iraqi city of Fallujah.
The 10-minute tape released Wednesday showed two captives, Fadhel Ibrahim and Firas Imeil, identifying themselves as Iraqi National Intelligence officers and saying they were captured in Baghdad’s Haifa Street on Sept. 28.
In separate scenes, the tape showed four masked gunmen standing behind Ibrahim and then Imeil, with one militant describing the blindfolded captives as “criminals.”
There was no way to immediately verify the authenticity of the tape, which was released in the name of the Brigades of Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, a militant group affiliated with al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad organization.
Al-Zarqawi’s group has kidnapped and beheaded numerous foreigners in attacks aimed at driving foreigners out of Iraq.
Samarra ‘mere labor pain’
The militant speaking in the tape mentioned the recent U.S.-led attacks against militants in the Iraqi city of Samarra and appeared to acknowledge a setback for insurgents in the city.
“Let America and those behind it know that what had happened in Samarra was a mere labor pain,” the militant said, adding that “war has its ups and downs.” U.S. and Iraqi troops claimed success earlier this month when they swept into Samarra, an insurgent stronghold northwest of Baghdad.
“It is a disgrace that such a criminal is considered as a member of our nation,” the militant said. Then two other masked men held down Ibrahim and a third severed the captive’s head with a knife before holding it up to the camera.
Imeil, who said he joined the Iraqi intelligence services four months ago and attended a training course in Jordan, was killed in identical fashion.
Before being beheaded, both victims advised fellow Iraqis working in the intelligence, police, national guard and other services to quit their jobs and “repent to God.”
U.S. tried to rescue American, British hostages
Meantime on Tuesday, defense officials told NBC News that the United States failed at least twice to rescue three hostages who were later beheaded in Iraq.
Video: The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a special military hostage rescue team acting on intelligence information raided two sites in Baghdad where it was believed the hostages were being held, but they found both sites to be abandoned.
The hostages — two Americans, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, and a Briton, Kenneth Bigley — were taken Sept. 16 from their home in Baghdad. Defense officials said it was not certain that the hostages were ever held at either location the Americans raided.
Armstrong was beheaded Sept. 20 by al-Zarqawi, and his body was found in Baghdad shortly afterward. Hensley was killed the next day by al-Zarqawi’s group, which demanded that Washington and London release female prisoners from jails in Iraq.
The first of the failed rescue attempts was made before any of the three men were killed, the officials said. A second rescue attempt was made after Armstrong’s death, while Bigley was still alive, officials said.
Bigley, 62, an engineer, was not killed until last week, and a video posted Sunday on the Internet showed him making a last appeal to Prime Minister Tony Blair to meet the demands of the militants holding him.
The edited tape showed a militant putting a knife to his neck and beginning to cut it, before a group of them leaped on him, yelling the Islamic rallying cry “God is greatest.”
Insurgent sources in Iraq had said Bigley escaped briefly from his captors shortly before they killed him Thursday in a town southwest of Baghdad.
Washington says it holds only two women in Iraq, both of them top weapons scientists from the days of former President Saddam Hussein. The British say they are holding no women.
American photographer freed
Meanwhile, an American photographer abducted by gunmen in Iraq said after his release on Tuesday that he was treated well but did not know why he had been kidnapped.
Paul Taggart, 24, told Arab satellite television al-Arabiya that four gunmen grabbed him early on Sunday while he was driving from his hotel in Baghdad to Sadr City, the sprawling and volatile Shiite slum area in the east of city.
“They fed me well, they didn’t hurt me in any way. I don’t know what their political interests were or financial. I don’t know who they were. I speak very little Arabic and they spoke no English,” he said in comments aired by al-Arabiya on Wednesday.
“I will be going home, when I don’t know, but I will go back to America to see my family and I’ll begin work again, I don’t know where,” he added.
Insurgents in Iraq have kidnapped more than 150 foreigners in their campaign to drive out coalition forces and hamper reconstruction.
NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Scott Foster in Washington, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.