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Friday, May 13, 2005

Pessimism growing about Saito's chances

Ex-legionnaire's wounds may be 'fatal'

Staff writer

Government officials Thursday were growing pessimistic about the fate of the Japanese security specialist believed taken captive by Islamic militants in Iraq, after his employer reported that he might have been fatally injured.

"We have not given up hope that Akihiko Saito may still be alive," said Hart Security Ltd. on its Web site. "However, an eyewitness report indicates that wounds sustained at the time of the incident may have proved fatal."

The Cyprus-based security contractor also said Sunday's ambush was "complex and well planned," and that the militants used several "improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, machinegun fire and small arms fire."

"It must be stressed that there is no proof that Saito has been taken hostage," the statement says. "All that can be confirmed is that Saito along with other members of the Hart Security team are still unaccounted for."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the government does not know what has happened to Saito, a former Ground Self-Defense Force paratrooper who also served in the French Foreign Legion for two decades before beginning work in Iraq in December.

Japan will continue to cooperate with other nations for more information, he said.

But many government officials said it is a bad sign that the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which claims to have abducted Saito, has not released a new statement or video of him as promised.

"One possibility is that the insurgent group is trying to make him say something for a video image and Mr. Saito, a well-trained soldier, is refusing to do so," said a senior government official who asked not to be named.

Another possibility is that he already may have died from his injuries, the official said.

The Sunni militant group said on its Web site Monday that it captured Saito, who was seriously injured, after attacking a convoy of 12 Iraqis and five foreigners in western Iraq.

According to Hart Security, Saito was with a company team guarding cargo on its way from Baghdad to the U.S. al-Asad air base, about 180 km west of Baghdad. They had successfully reached the base and had left when they were ambushed Sunday night.

The U.S. military has found several bodies at the ambush scene, but Saito was not among them, said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

Hosoda said Wednesday an eyewitness saw Saito injured during the battle, although government officials would not confirm any details.

According to a media report, Hart Security told the Japanese government that one of its South African employees saw Saito being shot by the militants, who took his gun after he collapsed and used it in the firefight.

Saito's brother Hironobu said Thursday he wants to see his brother's condition in pictures, "whether he is dead or alive."

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The Japan Times

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