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Sunday, April 18, 2004
Pair's release takes the heat off Koizumi
Political crisis averted since all Japanese hostages are now free, safe
Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo were pleasantly surprised Saturday by the news that two Japanese hostages were abruptly freed by their captors in Baghdad.
Their freedom effectively enabled Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to avert the biggest political crisis he has had to face since taking office, because any Japanese casualties in Iraq could deal a heavy blow to the prime minister, who has supported the U.S.-led war against Iraq even though the public is divided over the issue.
Foreign Ministry officials admitted they had few clues as to the whereabouts of the two men -- freelance journalist Junpei Yasuda and nongovernmental organization staffer Nobutaka Watanabe -- up until just minutes before a Japanese Embassy official in Baghdad met the pair at an office of the Islamic Clerics Association.
"(The meeting) was unexpected," said a senior ministry official, adding that he had little information regarding where the two men, who were seen being taken away by gunmen Wednesday, might be before hearing the news from Baghdad.
According to ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima, Tsukasa Uemura, charge d'affaires ad interim in Iraq, received a phone call from the clerics association while in a car heading for the group's office around 4:35 p.m. Japan time Saturday.
Uemura had a 4:45 p.m. meeting with clerics to express the Japan's gratitude for their cooperation in helping secure the release of three other Japanese hostages earlier in the week.
However, the caller told him the two others were in safe hands of the association, Takashima said.
"We couldn't be happier," Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said in a statement released later the same day.
"We'd like to renew our thanks for the cooperation and support of the people involved in Iraq and many other countries" in securing the hostages' release, she said.
But while the safe return of the five civilians gives Koizumi more breathing room, the two hostage incidents may rekindle debate over Japan's support of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Tokyo has troops helping in reconstruction efforts in the southern Iraq city of Samawah.
During a TV interview in English aired by TV stations immediately after their release, Watanabe blamed the U.S. for attacking and killing Iraqis in the central Iraqi city of Fallujah and said his abductors had said they wanted the Japanese troops out of Iraq.
The abductors who freed the other three Japanese on Thursday after a week in captivity also called for withdrawal of the Self-Defense Forces troops, denouncing Tokyo for supporting the U.S.