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Saturday, April 10, 2004

Koizumi says no to hostage-takers

'Dirty terrorist threat' to kill trio no cause for SDF pullout of Iraq


Staff writer

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi struck a defiant pose Friday over the Japanese hostage crisis in Iraq, stating he would not cave in to terrorists' demands that the Self-Defense Forces troops be withdrawn from the country.

A militant group calling itself Saraya al-Mujahideen has taken three Japanese civilians hostage and has threatened to kill them unless the government decides to pull the troops out by Sunday night.

"No, I don't," Koizumi told a Friday morning news conference when asked whether he had any intention of withdrawing SDF troops currently deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah.

"We should not yield to such a dirty threat from terrorists."

Meanwhile, the families of the hostages pleaded with the government to save the trio's lives -- possibly by withdrawing the troops.

On Thursday, Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera aired video footage of the blindfolded hostages being held at gunpoint; the footage was carried by TV stations nationwide.

Koizumi pledged to do his utmost to save the hostages by the deadline imposed by the previously unknown group.

Yet he acknowledged the government had not had any contact with the terrorist group, as it does not know who it should be negotiating with.

The tape was first sent by the kidnappers to Al-Jazeera, which notified the Foreign Ministry at 6:20 p.m. of its plan to air the video footage at 9 p.m. on Thursday.

In the video, members of the group displayed the passports of the hostages, who are Noriaki Imai, 18, a freelance writer; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a freelance photo journalist; and volunteer worker Nahoko Takato, 34.

"We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces or we will burn them alive," an Al-Jazeera announcer quoted a statement that he said had arrived with the videotape as saying.

The statement also blamed the Japanese government for supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq and stationing the SDF troops there.

Koizumi gave his full support to Washington when it launched the war in March last year. His administration decided to dispatch SDF units to Iraq in December, though the nation had been deeply divided over the issues.

Asked about his responsibility for the consequences, Koizumi only said that that was not an issue right now.

"This is not a problem concerning myself. This is a problem concerning how the whole country should cope with the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq," Koizumi said.

The government stressed that the SDF mission was a noncombat affair designed to help local residents.

"Are (the SDF troops) doing something negative for the Iraqi people?" Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda asked a separate news conference.

"No, on the contrary, they are trying to do something that is a plus for them, and they are working very hard in a dangerous place."

Fukuda's father, late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, released six Japanese Red Army members in exchange for the release of passengers and crew members aboard a hijacked airliner in Dacca in 1977, which established Japan's reputation as being weak-kneed in the face of terror threats.

But his son strongly opposes complying with the terrorists' demands, stating that he "cannot find a reason to withdraw the SDF."

Takeo Fukuda made his decision by saying "the life of a person is heavier than the Earth," a phrase that has long lived in people's memories.

But the current chief Cabinet secretary said of his father's words: "The times are different, and the context is different, too."

Meanwhile, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa left Tokyo on Friday for Jordan, in order to supervise local operations aimed at dealing with the crisis.

"The first step would be to speedily gather information that can only be obtained locally in Iraq and accurately analyze it," Aisawa said at Narita airport prior to his departure. "I will explore all possible ways to rescue them."

But he did not comment on the troop-withdrawal request by the families of the hostages.

Information from Kyodo added



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