• Kyodo

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An Iraqi taxi driver has testified that he saw a car carrying three Asian people surrounded by gunmen around noon Wednesday near Fallujah in southern Iraq.

The taxi driver identified one of the passengers as Soichiro Koriyama, one of the three Japanese taken hostage by a group threatening to kill them unless Japan withdraws its troops from Iraq, while looking through photos of the abductees.

The driver said he and his colleague in another taxi were on their way back to Jordan from Baghdad when they saw the car on a road between Fallujah and Ramadi, roughly 100 km west of Baghdad.

He said there were two men and a woman inside the orange car, and three masked men armed with automatic rifles were standing in front of the vehicle.

The driver said there were four other people on the right side of the car, pointing their guns at the vehicle. He said the driver of the orange car had been dragged outside the vehicle.

The three Japanese — Koriyama, Noriaki Imai and Nahoko Takato — are known to have left Amman for Baghdad around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday in a chartered orange vehicle.

Earlier, South Korea’s CBS radio quoted a member of a group of seven South Koreans who were kidnapped in Iraq and later released as saying that Japanese might have been present at the time of the abduction.

South Korean missionary Ho Yong initially said he and the others were forced into the same vehicle as a group of Japanese. He later changed his statement, saying the other people in the car were Asians but that he was not certain they were Japanese.

It is unclear whether the people Ho saw are the three Japanese being held captive by Iraqi militants.

Ho separately told Kyodo News that he saw five or six Asians, including a woman, surrounded by armed Arabs and quarreling with them sometime between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Thursday near Ramadi, where he and six other South Koreans were captured by the militants.

One of the Asians “looked similar” to one of the two Japanese men kidnapped, Ho told Kyodo. When he was shown the photograph of Takato, Ho said he cannot tell if she was the woman he saw in Ramadi.

South Korean radio earlier quoted Ho as saying that the militants burned the Asians’ belongings before taking them away. He said that was the last he saw of them.

The seven South Koreans were released unhurt after being taken hostage for about nine hours Thursday. They reportedly turned up at a hotel in Baghdad after being freed.

The Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry said Thursday night that the seven evangelists from the Christian Council of Korea were abducted at a location about 100 west of Baghdad earlier Thursday while heading for the Iraqi capital from Amman.

South Korea’s SBS television said the kidnappers treated the South Koreans well after learning they are evangelists. Ho said the kidnappers assured him they would not harm missionaries.

The kidnappers reportedly had thought the seven could be spies for the United States. But after learning this was not the case, they freed the evangelists near a U.S. base in Baghdad.

Ho said the kidnappers blindfolded and threatened to kill them, suspecting they were spies of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Another of the freed missionaries said the kidnappers yelled, “Kill the Americans, British and Japanese!”

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