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Japanese Families Awaiting Release of 3 Hostages in Iraq - 2004-04-11

Officials in Tokyo are still awaiting word that three Japanese hostages have been freed in Iraq. There had been expectations, expressed by members of Japan's governing coalition, that the three would be freed at mid-day Sunday.

Japan's foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, telephoned her Iranian counterpart Sunday to ask Tehran's assistance in freeing the three Japanese. Government officials here say Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi extended his cooperation.

The head of a Japanese government task force in Jordan, Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa, told reporters there that preparations were being made to receive the hostages in the Amman embassy, once they are freed.

Mr. Aisawa said there is no confirmation of reports the hostages might have been released, and no information about their condition or whereabouts.

Arabic-language Al-Jazeera satellite television early Sunday raised spirits across Japan when it reported that the captors had decided to release the three Japanese within 24 hours, after mediation by the Islamic Clerics Committee in Iraq.

Japan's Kyodo News agency, quoting an unnamed senior cleric in Iraq, said the insurgents had been persuaded to free the Japanese, because they were in the country to help the Iraqi people, and not to aid U.S.-led occupation forces.

Originally, the insurgents, calling themselves the Mujahideen Brigades, threatened to kill the three hostages, if Japan did not pull out the approximately 550 Self Defense Forces it has stationed in the south of the country.

Relatives of the hostages gathered in Tokyo to await word on the fate of their loved ones. Their emotions bounced during the day among anger, joy and anxiety as conflicting reports arrived.

Kimiko Koriyama, the mother of photo-journalist Soichiro Koriyama, pleads for the help of everyone in the public to help free her son.

Families of the three had asked the Japanese government to comply with the kidnappers' demand to remove Japanese troops from Iraq, and delivered 150,000 signatures on petitions to the government Sunday.

But Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has held firm, saying the troops are in Iraq for the good of the country, helping with its reconstruction.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Tokyo on a pre-arranged visit Saturday, hoping that Japan and other allies with troops in Iraq would remain committed, despite any threats from kidnappers and terrorists.