Japan says kidnapping will not lead to pull-out from Iraq, vows to win release

The apparent kidnapping of a Japanese man by a militant group in Iraq will not affect Tokyo's troop deployment there, Japan's defense chief said Tuesday as officials vowed to make every effort to win his release.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed on its Web site that it had kidnapped Akihiko Saito, 44, after ambushing a group of five foreign contractors. It said Saito was "seriously injured" in the fighting and that the others had died.

The site carried a photocopy of his passport, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed it was authentic, but said officials were still rushing to verify information about the case.

The incident won't affect Japan's deployment of 550 troops on a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq, defense chief Yoshinori Ono said, adding that the safety of those troops had been confirmed.

"At the moment, it won't affect the activities of (Japan's) Self-Defense Forces in Samawah," he said.

The government set up a task force at the Foreign Ministry to deal with the reported kidnapping.

"We are hurrying to confirm Mr. Saito's whereabouts, and if his reported seizure or serious injury turns out to be true, we must move urgently," Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said. "For now, our top priority is to gather accurate information."

The ministry confirmed that it received information from a British security firm Hart GMSSCO that Saito, a company consultant at its Baghdad office, was ambushed while traveling by car with more than 10 other people in western Iraq on Sunday and went missing. Several of them had reportedly died.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference that "we are acting as though the information is true" about the ambush. By Tuesday afternoon, the government still had made no contact with the captors, Hosoda said.

Hosoda added that two Japanese Embassy officials in Iraq had met with officials of the Iraq government to ask for cooperation.

When five Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq last year and later released, they returned home to face a public backlash with many criticizing them for recklessly entering the country and creating trouble.

Hosoda, asked Tuesday about Saito apparently ignoring government travel warnings to work in Iraq, said, "Generally speaking, the government has been repeatedly advising Japanese nationals against entering Iraq. It's very regrettable a situation like this happened."

The U.S. military in Iraq had no information on the report of a captured Japanese citizen, coalition spokesman Staff Sgt. Nick Minecci said. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said that Saito had entered Iraq in December 2004, but he could not yet confirm his kidnapping.

Japan's Kyodo News agency said Saito was employed by a security firm from Cyprus and may have been working as a security officer at a U.S. facility. Kyodo also reported that Saito was a Japanese army paratrooper for two years, and Takashima said Saito had also been with the French Foreign Legion for over 20 years.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army is believed to be a breakaway faction of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish-led group with links to al-Qaida. It has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Iraqi security forces and twin suicide bombings targeting Kurds in Irbil that killed 109 people in 2004.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army also has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of foreigners. In an Internet posting last August, it claimed it killed 12 Nepalese construction workers after taking them hostage.

Kyodo quoted Ono as saying that the Ansar al-Sunnah Army had distributed fliers in February outside the Japanese camp in Samawah criticizing the troops, calling them "Dirty Buddhists" collaborating with the United States. The Defense Agency refused to confirm the report.

Shosei Koda, a 24-year-old Japanese backpacker visiting Baghdad, was taken hostage last October and beheaded when Japan's government refused to bow to demands by his kidnappers that it withdraw its troops from Iraq. A gruesome video of his murder posted on the Internet said he was kidnapped by followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Five other Japanese were taken hostage in April 2004 but were later freed unharmed.

Those incidents fueled opposition in Japan to the government's unpopular dispatch of its troops for a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq.

About 500 soldiers are stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah purifying water, rebuilding infrastructure and offering medical aid since early 2004. The mission, combined with air and naval troops backing up the dispatch, is Japan's largest overseas military deployment since World War II.

Many Japanese have criticized the deployment as being a violation of Japan's pacifist constitution and for making Japan a target for terrorism.

MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press Writer

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