Last of Japanese hostages freed in Iraq

Two Japanese civilians who were taken hostage near Baghdad earlier this week were released Saturday by their captors at a mosque in the capital, just like the three other compatriots freed on Thursday.

Officials of the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad were present at the mosque when the two were handed over to Abdel Salem Al Kubaissi of the Islamic Clerics Association. He was the same Sunni sheik who mediated the release of the other three Japanese civilians.

After Japan confirmed that the two are freelance journalist Junpei Yasuda, 30, and his roommate, rights activist Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, they were taken to the embassy.

The pair vanished Wednesday while in a taxi en route to photograph a U.S. helicopter near Abu-Greib, west of Baghdad, that had apparently been shot down.

Yasuda told Kyodo News by telephone soon after their release that they were treated well by their captors, and that while they were questioned, “I did not feel that my life was in danger because the captors treated (me) graciously.”

Yasuda said he and Watanabe arrived at the Islamic Clerics Association office in Baghdad just before 5 p.m. Saturday Japan time.

“I am very happy, and I want to express my gratitude to everyone,” Yoshida said.

Watanabe meanwhile told Kyodo the pair were given a verbal message from their abductors in which they said “the United States and Britain are the enemies of Iraq, and we will continue to fight.”

The hostage-takers also called on Japan to pull its Self-Defense Forces troops out of southern Iraq, where they are on a humanitarian mission, and for Japanese not to enter Iraq, as they did not want to harm their “friends,” he said.

Sources said members of the Wahhab tribe of Sunni Muslims may have been responsible for the pair’s abduction, considering the way the captors were dressed. The Wahhab are regarded as the strictest Sunni tribe.

The sources added that the captors may have initially thought the two Japanese were spies for the U.S.

Their release followed that of the other three Japanese, who were taken hostage by gunmen late last week, and now all Japanese in the country are accounted for.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who spent the day in Hiroshima Prefecture stumping for a candidate running in the upcoming House of Representatives by-election, said after returning to Tokyo: “That’s wonderful. I’m sure the families are relieved.”

In Dubai, where he is coordinating efforts to get the first three freed hostages back to Japan, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa told reporters that Tokyo has not made a final decision on whether to fly Yasuda and Watanabe from Baghdad to Dubai.

The first report that the two had been kidnapped came from an Iraqi human rights activist and friend of Yasuda who was with the pair when they were abducted. The friend alerted a Japanese nongovernmental organization official via e-mail.

The families of the two men expressed joy and relief on hearing news that they had been released unharmed.

“I don’t know what to say. I have never been happier than this,” Yasuda’s 64-year-old father, Hideaki, said at his home in the city of Iruma, Saitama Prefecture.

Watanabe’s father, Kunio, 65, said he received a call from the Foreign Ministry around 5 p.m. that his son had been freed and was safe.

“I’m really glad,” he said.

But Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, while expressing relief, repeated the government’s calls on Japanese to not travel to Iraq and other destinations for which evacuation warnings are in effect.