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Friday, Oct. 12, 2007

Japanese kidnapped by bandits in Iran


Staff writer

A Japanese college student has been kidnapped in southeastern Iran by an armed group and Tokyo has asked Tehran for help to secure his safe release, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Thursday.

Komura said the government learned of the kidnapping directly from the student Monday, when he twice called the Japanese Embassy in Tehran. The student also called his family in Japan once.

According to an earlier report by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency of Iran, "a 23-year-old Japanese tourist" was kidnapped by "armed bandits" on his way to visiting a citadel in Kerman Province, southeastern Iran.

"We confirmed he was safe as of 10:30 p.m." Wednesday, Komura said Thursday morning.

News reports identified the student as Satoshi Nakamura from Osaka Prefecture, a senior at Yokohama National University. However, the government has declined to confirm his identity, citing security reasons.

A public relations official at the university said it has a senior by that name, but it could not confirm if he is the abductee. The student took a leave of absence from April to September, the university said.

Later in the day, an Iranian official said the suspected kidnappers of the student demanded the release from custody of one of their members.

The kidnappers are believed to be drug-runners based in southeastern Iran, according to an Iranian government source.

Komura said he spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki by telephone Wednesday evening and was told that Iranian security authorities have a rough idea of where the kidnappers are located.

Tokyo has no means to directly negotiate with or take action against the group, and thus has no choice but to ask Tehran to handle the case, Komura said, adding he doesn't know if the abductors have made any specific demands or if they are politically motivated.

"We cannot be either pessimistic or optimistic," he said.

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said Japan's priority is to secure the safe release of the abductee.

"That's the only point" for the government, Machimura told reporters Thursday.

Komura quoted Mottaki as saying the student entered Iran from Pakistan.

Southeast Iran, including Kerman Province, is a dangerous region for foreign tourists, Mottaki was quoted as saying.

According to the Foreign Ministry, a Belgian couple was kidnapped in August by a local group on the border between Kerman and Zahedan provinces in the region.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Itsunori Onodera told a news conference Thursday afternoon that the student was abducted Sunday and that some Iranian investigators see a similarity with the Belgian abductions.

In that case, the leader of the abductors reportedly demanded that his brother be released from jail in exchange for freeing the couple. The woman was freed soon after and the man five weeks later, but it is not known whether the kidnapper's demand was met, Foreign Ministry officials said.

The group involved in abducting the Belgians is believed to have been linked to the narcotics trade, the officials said.

In an urgent notice issued Thursday to Japanese travelers, the Foreign Ministry warned of the possibility of more abduction attempts.

The ministry raised the travel warning level Thursday for southeastern Iran. It is now advising Japanese nationals to postpone their trips, the second-highest warning level in its four-level warning classification.

Information from Kyodo added



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