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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Machimura uses Al-Jazeera to appeal for Saito's release

Desperate request made after five days of waiting


Staff writer

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura on Friday called on captors of Akihiko Saito, believed injured and abducted by Islamic militants in Iraq, to give him medical treatment and release him as soon as possible.

Machimura made the remarks in an interview with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network in what could be a desperate attempt to make some progress on finding Saito after five days with no information.

"If the militant group has taken Mr. Saito captive, I hope it will release him as soon as possible," Machimura said in the interview. "I also hope that he will be treated in a hospital since there is information that he is injured."

Machimura said he hoped that Iraq's security situation would improve and that Japan would continue to help rebuild the country. Ground Self-Defense Force troops are in the southern city of Samawah doing reconstruction work.

Part of the interview was aired on the Arab-language network later Friday.

"We have to give out a message that Mr. Saito is innocent and he should be freed," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters.

The former member of the Ground Self-Defense Force and French Foreign Legion, was ambushed Sunday with his colleagues from security contractor Hart Security Ltd. near Hit in western Iraq. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army has claimed responsibility for the attack and posted Saito's passport and ID cards on its Web site Monday.

According to Hart Security, the company team had been guarding cargo on its way from Baghdad to U.S. al-Asad air base, about 180 km west of Baghdad. They were attacked after leaving the base.

With a limited intelligence network in Iraq, Tokyo appears to have exhausted all means in determining Saito's fate. Although the captors said on its Web site that it would post additional video images of Saito, they have remained silent.

The government has been able to piece together a general picture of what happened during the ambush, but it is not clear if Saito was taken hostage as was stated on the Ansar al-Sunnah Army Web site.

The Iraqi government is trying to contact the insurgent group through an Islamic religious group, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

Former comrade expresses shockat Saito's abduction by militants

ORANGE, France (Kyodo) A Japanese member of the French Foreign Legion on Thursday expressed shock at the news that one of his former comrades has reportedly been taken captive by an Islamic militant group in Iraq.

"I am shocked. Why him? I am worried," Michio Yoshimizu, 32, chief sergeant with the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment based here, told the Japanese media.

Former legionnaire Akihiko Saito, 44, is thought to have been captured earlier this week by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army while he and his coworkers at Hart Security Ltd. were returning to Baghdad after unloading materials at a U.S. military base in Al Assad, about 180 km west of Baghdad.

"He is a kind and reliable person. His reputation was excellent," Yoshimizu said of Saito.

Yoshimizu said he had heard that Saito was leaving the legion, though he did not know that he was going to Iraq. "This is only my guess, but he may have wanted to test himself or wanted a new challenge," he said.

Yoshimizu said that he and Saito had exchanged information about work from time to time, and described Saito as a "charismatic figure."

He also said that the British security firm where Saito works is well-known in the legion, adding that he believes other legionnaires have worked at the firm.

Saito joined the French Foreign Legion in 1983 after leaving the Ground Self-Defense Force. He served in the legion for 21 years.

Yoshimizu, a native of Esashi, Iwate Prefecture, joined the legion in 1991 after graduating from high school. He has been deployed to Cambodia and other countries.



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