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Saturday, April 17, 2004

Japan's crisis response wins praise, flak


Staff writer

Did Tokyo handle the Iraq hostage crisis properly?

Experts praised the tough stand maintained by the government from the initial phase of the crisis, when it ruled out any concessions to the hostage-takers, who had demanded the withdrawal of the Ground Self-Defense Force troops in Iraq in exchange for the lives of three hostages.

But the crisis has also revealed shortcomings in Tokyo's information-gathering and management system, experts and government insiders say.

"We were too optimistic," said a high-ranking official, lamenting the confusion in the handling of information.

Immediately after news that three Japanese civilians were taken hostage in Iraq on April 8, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi defied their captors' demand to pull Japanese troops out of Iraq.

Kazuhisa Ogawa, an analyst of military affairs and an expert on crisis management, praised the government's initial reaction, saying Tokyo must first say no to any extortionist demand before entering negotiations so the enemy doesn't set the pace of talks.

"I think the leadership of the prime minister and (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo) Fukuda worked very well" in conveying the initial response, Ogawa said.

But he also pointed to a shortage of real experts on Arab affairs at the Foreign Ministry, especially those who can engage in coordination and negotiation with Mideast governments, instead of people with only textbook knowledge.

Ogawa also said there are only a few ministry officials who can speak or translate Arabic at a professional level.

Government sources admitted they had only indirect contact with the kidnappers of the three through a number of self-styled mediators.

The government had to gauge the credibility of each mediator and source of information, they said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Friday that the Foreign Ministry is too understaffed to carry out that task.

The ministry, due to security concerns heightened after the assassination of two diplomats in Iraq last November, now has fewer than 10 officials stationed throughout the country.

The situation has apparently not changed even after Japan deployed the GSDF troops to the southern city of Samawah.

The government is also facing difficulty gathering information on two Japanese who were apparently abducted by gunmen in the suburbs of Baghdad on Wednesday.

Asked if Japanese diplomats can engage in an on-the-spot search for the two, a senior government official said: "Baghdad is very dangerous. We can't have them do that, because they themselves could be abducted. We have to ask local police for that kind of help."

Another official also said careless unofficial statements by government leaders and lawmakers, which were then reported by the media, may have influenced the hostage-takers.

When the government obtained information early Sunday morning that the three could be released by noon that day, some overjoyed government officials divulged the news to reporters off-the-record, putting the whole nation on a close watch for their much-awaited release.

But the hostage-takers then went silent for days. There have been reports suggesting there may have been internal discord among the kidnappers -- between those calling for the hostages' release and those demanding that they be used as bargaining chips in negotiations over a ceasefire between U.S. forces and Sunni Muslim insurgents in Fallujah, near where the hostages are believed to have been held.

"Seeing the reactions on our side, the kidnappers may have realized that the hostages had much value." the official said.

If the government had reacted more calmly, the hostage-takers may have released the three much earlier, the official added.



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