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Japan: Japanese Hostage in Iraq May Have Been Killed

Japanese government officials in Tokyo say they believe that the body of a 24-year-old Japanese man, taken hostage by a militant group earlier in the week in Iraq, has been found.

Word of the apparent death of backpacker Shosei Koda came in the pre-dawn hours Saturday in Japan.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima told a hastily arranged news conference that U.S. military forces in Iraq say that the body found in the northern Iraq town of Tikrit has distinguishing marks that lead them to believe it is that of the Japanese hostage.

Mr. Takashima said the body will be taken to the Japanese Embassy in Doha, Qatar for positive identification.

The militant group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an ally of the al-Qaida terrorist network, released a video Wednesday on the Internet showing Mr. Koda pleading for his life. A militant on the tape said the group would behead Mr. Koda within 48 hours if Japan did not remove its soldiers from Iraq.

There was no immediate word on how Mr. Koda had been killed.

Japan has about 500 non-combat troops near Samawah, in southern Iraq.

The government here refused to grant the kidnappers' demand to remove that the troops be removed from Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he would not bow to terrorists.

Japan's government set up an emergency operations center in Amman and dispatched a vice foreign minister to the Jordanian capital to press for Mr. Koda's release. Japan says it contacted a total of 25 countries for help.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and members of the Koda family appeared on Arabic television to appeal to the captors.

After the kidnappers' deadline had passed, Mr. Koda's mother and brother held an emotional news conference on Friday in Tokyo to plead for his release.

Mrs. Setsuko Koda said her son went to New Zealand in January on his first overseas trip to study English for a year and the family had no idea he had then traveled to the Middle East.

She speculates that her son, who she said was a kind-hearted young man who planned to become a nurse, wanted to see what he could do to bring peace to Iraq.

Mr. Koda is the fifth Japanese citizen to have died in Iraq since the start of the U.S. led war there. However, he is the first to have been taken hostage and then executed.

Five Japanese civilians, including a photographer and an aid worker, were kidnapped in Iraq in April. Militants then also threatened to kill three of them unless Japan pulled out its troops. But all were released unharmed after intense diplomatic efforts by Japanese officials.