Japanese officials have said they have received information that three Japanese civilians held hostage in Iraq are about to be released. Steve Herman reports from Tokyo.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told reporters in Tokyo Sunday morning that the government has been informed by "a number of sources" that the hostages will be set free.

Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democratic Party secretary-general, suggested the hostages would be released by noon, also based on an analysis of information from a number of sources.

At the noon hour, Deputy Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda entered the prime minister's official residence - and was mobbed by reporters. Mr. Hosoda told reporters he had received no information yet that the hostages had been set free.

Word of the possible release was first received here in the early hours of Sunday in a broadcast by al-Jazeera satellite television. An al-Jazeera announcer, quoting a fax message, said 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 had already gathered in Tokyo to await word on the fate of their loved ones. Several told reporters Sunday that they were relieved to hear about the possible release, but wouldn't stop worrying until they saw the hostages' faces.

Families of the three had asked the Japanese government to comply with the kidnappers' demand to remove Japanese troops from Iraq. 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 previously arranged visit Saturday, hoping that Japan and other allies with troops in Iraq would remain committed despite any threats from kidnappers and terrorists.