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Kidnapping Crisis Likely to Dominate Cheney's Meetings with Japanese Officials - 2004-04-10

Vice President Dick Cheney has arrived in Japan, where the government is preoccupied with the kidnapping of three Japanese civilians in Iraq. The kidnapping crisis is likely to be at the top of the agenda in meetings between the American vice president and Japanese officials.

The vice president, starting an Asian trip that was scheduled before the kidnapping took place, is expected to urge Japan to resist the kidnappers' demand for withdrawal of Japan's troops from Iraq. So far, Tokyo is holding firm, with a chorus of top officials led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asserting that Tokyo will not bow to terrorist demands.

A message attributed to the previously unknown Mujahideen Brigades said the hostages would be killed if Japanese troops do not leave quickly. There is some confusion about the kidnappers' deadline, but officials here say they believe it to be Sunday evening Japan time.

The government has set up task forces in Tokyo and Amman, Jordan, to deal with the crisis, but says it has made no contact with the kidnappers.

Domestic pressure is growing on the prime minister, in a country that was divided over the Iraq deployment from the start. Some 550 Japanese troops are in the southern city of Samawa, engaged in humanitarian work to help rebuild the war-torn country.

Some opposition politicians are already demanding Mr. Koizumi's resignation - a demand expected to grow louder if the hostages are harmed. Activists have begun calling for Japanese forces to quit Iraq immediately.

In front of Osaka's main railway station, a woman pleads with a passersby to sign a petition calling for withdrawal of the troops.

Despite the anxiety here, Sophia University political science professor Kuniko Inoguchi believes most Japanese will back the Koizumi administration's stance.

"There is no way out of this counterterrorism because if you are out you will be targeted more," prof. Inoguchi said. "So, as a whole, I think the public opinion will side with Prime Minister Koizumi against terrorism, despite all these difficulties and tragedies."

South Korea and Australia also say they will not back out of troop commitments to Iraq. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said withdrawals would only spark more hostage taking.

"Any talk of withdrawal, any talk of weakening of resolve, of commitment, will only encourage a repetition and ...extension of this kind of behavior," he warned.

However Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, said Saturday that he will withdraw his country's troops from Iraq if they are unable to carry out their humanitarian work there.

Also on Mr. Cheney's agenda is a plea by the Bush administration for Japan to resume imports of U.S. beef, banned three months ago after the first case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States.

In Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, the vice president will also discuss the standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, although U.S. officials are playing down the possibility of major developments on that topic during the trip.