Although most Japanese firms trading in the Middle East have responded to the war in Iraq by evacuating their employees to safe locations, a few are moving ahead with projects in potentially dangerous areas.

According to the Foreign Ministry, most of the roughly 5,000 Japanese living in countries near Iraq had moved to locations thought to be beyond the range of Iraqi missiles before Washington launched its offensive Thursday.

Most workers have been moved to the United Arab Emirates, the destination favored by such companies as trading houses Mitsui & Co. and Sumitomo Corp., as well as oil refiner Idemitsu Kosan Co. and general contractor Taisei Corp.

“It looks like the U.A.E. is serving as a shelter for Japanese companies,” said one Taisei official.

Mitsui and Sumitomo earlier this month withdrew their employees from Kuwait, a possible target of Iraqi bombardment.

The forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sabotaged Kuwaiti oil wells during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Mitsui and Sumitomo were quick to implement contingency plans in light of the 1990 crisis, during which more than 100 Japanese were taken hostage in Iraq after being ferried there from occupied Kuwait.

But Arabian Oil Co., Japan’s biggest producer of crude oil, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. have yet to suspend operations in Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq and Kuwait.

Arabian Oil still has about 100 Japanese employees in the Khafji oil field, located near the Kuwaiti border. They are working on a joint project involving Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti corporations.

“There are a number of Saudi Arabian colleagues drilling oil in Khafji,” an Arabian Oil official said. “There’s no reason to let only Japanese leave.”

A Mitsubishi Heavy spokesman said about 80 Japanese workers are engaged in the construction of a thermal power plant in Saudi Arabia, which is scheduled to start operating in May.

Both Arabian Oil and Mitsubishi Heavy said they will proceed with their Saudi projects, while securing land escape routes for their employees, because it will be difficult for them to re-enter the country once they leave.

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