Japan stays silent on hostage crisis
By Masayuki Kitano
Tokyo - Japanese officials were tight-lipped on the fate of three Japanese hostages in Iraq on Wednesday after days of conflicting reports, fearing that too much talk could endanger the captives' lives.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has insisted that he will not withdraw Japan's 550 troops from southern Iraq, where they are engaged in reconstruction work.
But analysts say his handling of the crisis could affect by-elections for the Lower House of parliament this month as well as Upper House elections in July.
"We will not comment on such things now," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference when asked about the safety of the Japanese hostages.
Japan's Foreign Ministry re-issued a warning to all Japanese nationals to leave Iraq.
"We again strongly advise people already staying in Iraq to evacuate the country immediately and to absolutely refrain from travelling to the country regardless of the purpose," the warning said, citing a rise in the threat of kidnappings in the country.
Up to 40 foreigners from at least a dozen countries are being held hostage in Iraq, where US forces are locked in some of the fiercest battles with Sunni and Shi'a forces since the fall of President Saddam Hussein a year ago.
United States President George Bush vowed in a prime-time news conference to stay the course in Iraq and ruled out any delay in a June 30 deadline for a transfer of sovereignty to a still-undefined interim Iraqi government.
Relatives of the Japanese hostages found some comfort in the absence of bad news.
"I believe the lack of any particular change is actually a good sign," said Naoko Imai, mother of 18-year-old Noriaki Imai.
"We're very worried," she added. "We are praying that they will all return safely, without injury."
The three hostages are Imai, who wanted to look into the effects of depleted uranium weapons, freelance journalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32, and aid worker Nahoko Takato, 34.
Some ordinary Japanese have criticised the three for going to Iraq given the danger and repeated government warnings.
Asked if the worsening security situation in Iraq might not prompt a review of the troop dispatch, Koizumi told reporters: "No. We will further do our utmost so that it will be possible to conduct reconstruction aid activities."
Some of Koizumi's harshest critics, including the main opposition Democratic Party, agree that the troops should not be brought home in response to threats from the kidnappers.
But they argue that the deteriorating security situation in southern Iraq means the dispatch is violating a law that restricts the troops' activities to non-combat zones.
Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba has cancelled a planned trip to Samawa, where the troops are based, to boost troop morale due to security concerns, Kyodo said on Tuesday.
Japan was divided over Koizumi's original decision to dispatch the troops to rebuild Iraq and is split over whether they should now be pulled out to save the hostages' lives.
US Vice-President Dick Cheney this week urged Koizumi to keep the troops in Iraq or risk unravelling the US-led coalition there.