Abe strikes control pose as Japan scrambles for information

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

With the whereabouts of 10 of the 17 Japanese taken hostage at a natural gas complex in Algeria still unknown, the government spent Saturday making desperate but fruitless efforts to gather more information on the situation.

The Liberal Democratic Party administration and Yokohama-based engineering company JGC Corp. confirmed that four more plant workers were safe Friday night, bringing the total to seven.

On Saturday morning, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said no verifiable information was available on the remaining 10 and that the government did not have any useful resources in the area.

“We don’t have much knowledge about that location,” Suga said at a news conference shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday. “We may ask for cooperation from the United States.”

A senior government official said Tokyo only had two measures available to verify reports on the Japanese workers — notices from the Algerian government and sporadic telephone calls from those who escaped from or eluded their militant Islamic captors.

“The site is more than 1,000 km away from the capital (Algiers) . . . there are no airports around it and (all access to) the area is being blocked by the Algerian authorities,” the official said Friday evening, noting Algeria’s government also seems to be having difficulty gathering information.

At the Saturday morning news conference, Suga said intelligence suggests the Islamic group was still inside the complex and that some people, including Japanese, are still “in dangerous conditions.”

“We are handling the situation based on that assumption,” Suga said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to Japan early the same day after cutting short his diplomatic trip to Indonesia. He returned to the prime minister’s office around 4:30 a.m. and convened an emergency meeting on the hostage crisis at about 6 a.m. The meeting only lasted 10 minutes. Abe then got in front of the TV cameras to show off his leadership.

“I will take the lead in handling this incident, with all the government united,” Abe told reporters.

In Jakarta, the prime minister had been set to announce his “Abe doctrine” for Asian diplomacy on the final day of his Southeast Asia tour. But for the rightist Abe, who likes to boast of his diplomacy and crisis management skills, demonstrating that he was engaged in the hostage crisis appeared to be far more important than delivering a key speech to his hosts in Indonesia, the final stop on his first overseas trip since taking office in December.

Many prime ministers have faced repercussions for mishandling a crisis and taken heavy — sometimes critical — political damage.

For instance, Yoshiro Mori was heavily criticized in 2001 for reportedly continuing to play golf after being notified that a Japanese fisheries training ship with high school students aboard had sunk after being hit by a U.S. submarine off Hawaii.

Then there was Naoto Kan, who was criticized for his apparent failures in handling the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake, monster tsunami and triple meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant all at the same time while he was prime minister in March 2011.

While Abe was overseas, Suga repeatedly stressed during news conferences that he was in regular contact with him during the trip and asked for instructions to emphasize that the prime minister was fully engaged in crisis management.

The prime minister’s office on Friday also released photos of Abe holding a meeting on the hostage crisis while aboard his government airplane during the overseas trip.