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For relatives of the three Japanese hostages in Iraq, hopes for their release Sunday morning quickly turned to frustration and gloom over a subsequent lack of solid information on what was happening to their loved ones as the day wore on.

“The situation has not changed. We know nothing about their safety,” Shuichi Takato, 33, brother of 34-year-old hostage Nahoko Takato, told a news conference Sunday afternoon. “I ask people worldwide for cooperation in defusing the stalemate.”

Naoko Imai, the 51-year-old mother of hostage Noriaki Imai, 18, said Monday: “We don’t know what to believe. We were in joy at one time but suddenly fell into depression at another,”

Kimiko Koriyama, 55, mother of hostage Soichiro Koriyama, 32, said in the news conference Sunday: “I was expecting to see my son’s face at noon. Please, help my son.”

The relatives were in Tokyo discussing the situation when a television news bulletin shortly after 3 a.m. that said the hostages would be freed within 24 hours prompted them to cheer, hug each other and cry.

In a video broadcast Thursday by the Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera, the hostage-takers said the Japanese captives would be burned to death unless Japan announced within three days it was withdrawing the Ground Self-Defense Force from Iraq.

The Sunday morning statement that the hostages would be freed, released apparently by the same group and also broadcast by Al-Jazeera, came only 18 hours before what was believed to be the 9 p.m. Sunday deadline, Japan time, for the abductors’ initial death threat.

“I nearly wept for joy, I was so glad to hear the news,” said Imai’s 54-year-old father, Takashi.

Ayako Inoue, 30, sister of Nahoko Takato, told a news conference earlier: “I am extremely grateful. I don’t remember what I said at the instant I heard the news, as I was so happy.”

However, the families said shortly after noon in their second statement of Sunday that the situation remained critical amid a lack of news on the hostage trio.

The statement reiterated the relatives’ call for the government to pull the GSDF troops out of Iraq, as demanded by the kidnappers, “because nothing has changed yet.”

The relatives have been meeting with government officials to urge them to pull out the troops engaged in humanitarian reconstruction aid activities centering on Samawah, southern Iraq, but the government has not been responsive.

In a news conference shortly before the 9 p.m. “deadline,” the visibly exhausted Shuichi Takato raised his voice, “The only thing we know for certain is that the (hostages) who seemed to be in pain, at the knifepoint of the kidnappers, are our families. Please help them.”

Koizumi stands firm

Staff report Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told opposition party officials Monday that the security situation in Iraq has not yet deteriorated to the point where Ground Self-Defense Force troops need to be withdrawn.

During a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, Naoto Kan, leader of of the Democratic Party of Japan, and DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada meanwhile urged Koizumi to update the public on the latest developments in the hostage crisis.

Three Japanese civilians have been taken hostage by a militant group in Iraq that has threatened to kill them unless Japan decides to withdraw the GSDF troops from the country.

Kan and Okada also pressed Koizumi to meet with relatives of the hostages, who are currently in Tokyo pressing the government to take action to save them. Koizumi did not give a clear answer on the matter.

Koizumi indicated that the government is still finding it difficult to ascertain the condition of the three hostages, stating that it is difficult to establish the veracity of the various pieces of information that have surfaced, Kan told reporters after their meeting.

Koizumi said he should not elaborate for fear of confusing the public and endangering the lives of the hostages.

While voicing support for the government’s refusal to cave in to the kidnappers’ demands for the withdrawal of the troops, Kan urged Koizumi to reconsider his determination to keep the troops stationed in Samawah amid the worsening local security situation.

Koizumi acknowledged that security conditions have deteriorated, but not to the point where SDF troops are unable to carry out their duties in “noncombat zones,” as required under a special law that facilitated the Iraq dispatch.

“If it falls to such a point, the Self-Defense Forces will have to evacuate or withdraw from the region. But not right now,” Koizumi was quoted as telling the DPJ officials.

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