The fate of three Japanese civilians taken hostage by an armed group in Iraq remained unknown Monday morning — more than a full day after a statement by the kidnappers promising to release them within 24 hours was broadcast.

The three are being held near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and a negotiator has told the Japanese government that they remain safe, a government source said early Monday, acknowledging that an unidentified person is serving as a go-between with the kidnappers.

Meanwhile, a person claiming to be a mediator told an Arab television that the kidnappers have renewed their threat to kill the hostages unless Japan pulls out its troops from Iraq. Japanese officials, however, said credibility of the man’s remark is questionable.

Relatives of the hostages are becoming increasingly nervous. The kidnappers had initially threatened to kill the hostages unless Japan decided to withdrawl its Ground Self-Defense Force troops from Iraq by Sunday night.

“I’ve been waiting (for their release) since (Sunday) morning. I’m beginning to doubt whether he will really return home,” said Naoko Imai, 51, whose 18-year-old son Noriaki Imai is one of the hostages.

Qatar-based Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera reported around 2:40 a.m. Sunday Japan time that the group, which calls itself the Saraya al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Brigades), said it would release the three “within 24 hours.”

The report triggered hope that the trio — Imai, a freelance writer from Sapporo, Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a photojournalist from Tokyo. and Nahoko Takato, 34, a volunteer worker from Chitose, Hokkaido — would be immediately released.

However, lack of solid information and mixed media reports have since added to growing worries over the fate of the three.

An Iraqi human rights activist said Sunday night Japan time the militant group has extended the deadline for Japan to announce withdrawal of its SDF troops by 24 hours, Al-Jazeera reported.

In an interview with the broadcaster, Mazhar al-Delemie, who heads a human rights organization, said the abductors are threatening to kill one of the hostages within 24 hours, a second within the next 12 hours and the third within the following 12 hours if Japan does not withdraw its SDF personnel from the country.

Al-Delemie claims to be a mediator for the group. Al-Jazeera as well as a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo discounted the information attributed to al-Delemie, saying its credibility is low.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported in London that a British man taken hostage last Monday in Nasiriya in southern Iraq has been released after six days of captivity and handed over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Gary Teeley, 37, who lives in the Middle East, disappeared in Nasiriya on Monday and was freed earlier Sunday, the BBC said, adding a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that Teeley had been handed over to the CPA.


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