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Three Japanese civilians have been taken hostage in Iraq by a terrorist-related group that has threatened to kill them if Japan does not withdraw its troops from the country in three days.

Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera reported Thursday night that an Iraqi group named Saraya al-Mujahideen took two men and one woman hostage and is demanding the Self-Defense Forces troops be withdrawn within three days.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference Thursday night that the government is demanding the hostages’ “immediate release.”

He said, “It is unforgivable and we are very resentful.”

Fukuda added, “there is no reason to withdraw” the SDF troops from Iraq, because the SDF personnel are carrying out humanitarian activities.

He declined to say whether this stance would change if the three were injured or killed.

“We don’t have to discuss such a thing now,” he said. “At this moment, we’re trying our best to confirm facts and rescue the three.”

Al-Jazeera informed the Foreign Ministry at 6:20 p.m. of its plan to air the video footage, Fukuda said. The government has had no direct contact with the kidnappers, he added.

Eight South Koreans were kidnapped in Iraq the same day by unidentified “armed men.” One detainee was later released.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it did not know who was responsible for the capture of the South Koreans.

At 9 p.m., Al-Jazeera showed the footage of the three Japanese and their passports, identifying them as Noriaki Imai, 18, a freelance writer; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a freelance photo journalist; and volunteer worker Nahoko Takato, 34.

The captives were blindfolded and surrounded by unidentified gunmen.

A later shot showed them sitting on the floor, free of their bindings and talking with their captors. The walls of the room were riddled with bullet holes.

“Three of your sons have fallen into our hands,” the Al-Jazeera announcer read from a statement that he said came with the videotape.

“We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces or we will burn them alive. We give you three days starting the day this tape is broadcast.”

Editors at Al-Jazeera said the Japanese were captured in southern Iraq, while sources at the Baghdad branch of the news organization’s headquarters in the Qatar capital, Doha, said it received the video Thursday and the Japanese were apparently taken captive Tuesday or Wednesday.

Imai, of Sapporo, graduated from high school in March. While in high school, he helped lawyers and editors set up an NGO to publicize the devastating effects of depleted uranium rounds left in Iraq.

The NGO had appealed against the dispatch of SDF troops to Iraq, local news reports said.

Imai’s mother, Naoko, 51, confirmed that her son was in the video. She said he was scheduled to return around April 17.

Koriyama, of Sadowara, Miyazaki Prefecture, has been covering Iraq for Weekly Asahi.

The Asahi Shimbun said Thursday that Koriyama is not currently contracted to the company, although he had frequented the office to visit editors there. He had provided photos for the weekly magazine by contract on several occasions.

Relatives at his family home confirmed that it is Koriyama in the footage.

Takato, of Chitose, Hokkaido, was helping Iraqi street children in cooperation with Japanese NGOs. After flying to Iraq last year, she supplied local children with blankets and clothes.

Takato’s mother, Kyoko, told Kyodo News that the woman in the video is her daughter.

The Prime Minister’s Official Residence and the Foreign Ministry have set up emergency teams to collate information from the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

At a news conference late Thursday night, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi offered a fresh warning to Japanese nationals in Iraq, mostly media reporters, telling them to withdraw from Iraq to prevent a recurrence.

“We strongly recommend (Japanese) to evacuate from Iraq as soon as possible,” Kawaguchi said.

She said the ministry has issued the highest travel warning on Iraq.

Kawaguchi said the government has no information whatsoever on Saraya al-Mujahideen, the captors’ group.

She said the government will dispatch Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa to Jordan on Friday.

Japan has sent 550 Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq on a noncombat mission to the southern Iraq city of Samawah to help rebuild the country.

It is Japan’s riskiest military deployment since World War II, and critics have said it violates Japan’s pacifist Constitution.

Any Japanese casualties in connection with the dispatch of the SDF to Iraq would deal a heavy political blow to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

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