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Three Japanese Return From Captivity in Iraq - 2004-04-18

Three Japanese, freed from a week of captivity in Iraq, have returned home. The two men and one woman were tight-lipped amid government and public criticism in Japan that they were reckless in attempting to take a taxi from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad.

The three - a photojournalist, a volunteer aid worker, and a teen-age peace activist - were escorted back to Japan on a commercial flight from the United Arab Emirates by Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa. They did not speak at a Tokyo news conference as had been anticipated because, family members say, they have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress.

The brother of Nahoko Takato, showed the media a handwritten message from his sister and read it on her behalf. Shuichi Takato said his sister wants the media and public to give her some time to recover from her ordeal. She promises to speak about her experiences later.

Two other freed Japanese captives, a freelance journalist and a human-rights activist who were released three days after being kidnapped, are expected back in Japan by Tuesday. Those two said, after being released, that they wanted to stay in Iraq to continue their work, but that Japanese Embassy officials had persuaded them to return to Japan.

Japanese police announced they have opened a criminal investigation into the kidnappings by invoking a clause involving suspects outside Japan. Authorities say the former hostages will be questioned by police investigators soon.

The three who returned to Japan Sunday were taken hostage on April 7 by a group calling itself the Mujahideen Brigades and held for more than a week in the Fallujah area, west of Baghdad. The group threatened to kill the three if Japan did not pull its troops out of southern Iraq - a demand rejected by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

During a campaign stop in rural Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture), Mr. Koizumi said he was grateful all five Japanese are now free. Acknowledging that the hostage taking had ignited a debate in the country over Japan's role in Iraq, the prime minister says Japanese have to make up their minds and be resolute in fulfilling the country's level of responsibility in the international community.

Opposition leader Naoto Kan, also on the campaign trail, said it is time to reconsider the dispatch of the Self Defense Forces in Iraq, which are prohibited from being in an area where there is active fighting underway.

The head of the Democratic Party says Japan needs to find a different way to show its support for the Iraqi people, rather than taking its cues from America.