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Japan, S. Korea Vow to Keep Troop Commitments in Iraq Despite Kidnappings - 2004-04-09

Japan and South Korea are vowing to keep to their troop commitments in Iraq despite kidnappings of their civilians in the war-torn country. The incidents are proving to be a political and public relations challenge for both governments.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says the kidnapping of three Japanese civilians in Iraq is "intolerable," and he is demanding their "immediate, safe release." The prime minister has vowed to try to rescue the hostages, but says Japan will not bow to the kidnappers' demands.

Mr. Koizumi tells reporters that Japan will not withdraw its Self Defense Forces from southern Iraq as demanded by the kidnappers.

A government task force on the kidnappings has been formed and is headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

Mr. Fukuda, who is also the top government spokesman, says there has been no contact with those holding the Japanese and no progress has been made in securing their release.

The country has been transfixed by the videotaped images of three Japanese civilians - two men and a woman - sitting blindfolded and surrounded by masked men armed with guns and knives. The three are a freelance photojournalist, a teenaged peace activist and a volunteer humanitarian worker.

A statement broadcast by Arabic-language al-Jazeera satellite television and attributed to the previously unknown Mujahideen Brigades says the Japanese will be "burned alive" if Tokyo does not agree to remove its Self Defense Forces from Iraq within three days.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa has been dispatched to Jordan to take charge of local operations at the Japanese Embassy there, as Tokyo begins a high-level public appeal to the kidnappers and to the general Iraqi population.

Defense Agency director, General Shigeru Ishiba, says it is necessary for the Self Defense Forces to continue their humanitarian work in southern Iraq.

Mr. Ishiba says the Japanese troops are there to provide water, medical aid and help reconstruct Iraq.

But some in Japan want the troops to leave. Mrs. Naoko Imai, the mother of 18-year-old Noriaki, who is among those held, on Friday made a tearful plea to the government to save her son.

Mrs. Imai says the Self Defense Forces should leave Iraq immediately.

Meanwhile, South Korea on Friday said its plans to send 3,000 non-combat troops to Iraq are unaffected by the day-long kidnapping of its citizens. Seven missionaries from the Korean Council of Evangelical Churches were briefly held in Iraq Thursday after being seized by gunmen.

At the same time, Seoul issued a "virtual ban" on travel by civilian citizens to Iraq. The presidential office has also announced that non-essential staff from its Baghdad embassy are leaving Iraq, and security is being boosted at all diplomatic missions in the Gulf region.

South Korea plans to augment 600 military engineers and medics in Iraq with some three thousand troops to assist in reconstruction work. The troop deployment has become a major campaign topic in South Korea's parliamentary election, which is to be held next Thursday.