Japan continued desperate efforts Monday to contact and negotiate with the group holding three Japanese hostage in Iraq.
But the kidnappers apparently remained silent, after more than a full day had passed since their promise to release the hostages within 24 hours had been broadcast.
The captors, who identified themselves as members of Saraya al-Mujahideen, faxed the statement to Arab satellite TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which aired the news around 2:40 a.m. Japan time on Sunday.
The Japanese government said Monday evening that it has no solid information as to the whereabouts or condition of the hostages.
Relatives of the three were meanwhile forced to swing between joy and despair, as conflicting and unconfirmed information about the group and the hostages was reported through the Qatar-based broadcaster.
The three hostages are Noriaki Imai, 18, a freelance writer; Soichiro Koriyama, 32, a freelance photojournalist; and volunteer aid worker Nahoko Takato, 34.
“At one point, we judged that from various points of view that they were safe,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference Monday morning. “Now we cannot confirm that.”
In an afternoon news conference, Fukuda said the situation remained unchanged, and declined to give further details.
Government officials have indicated that negotiations either directly with the kidnappers or through mediators were under way, refusing to elaborate on grounds that the lives of the hostages are at stake.
Government sources said the three are possibly being held somewhere near Fallujah, a central Iraqi city west of Baghdad where fierce battles have been fought between Sunni Muslim fighters and U.S. forces.
The government is having difficulty contacting the group, one of the sources said. One possible obstacle is the lingering military tension in the city, despite a ceasefire that took effect Sunday and was extended to Monday afternoon, he said.
Relatives of the hostages have spent sleepless nights since Thursday evening, when Al-Jazeera broadcast a video showing the three being held at gunpoint.
In the video, Saraya al-Mujahideen shows the three and their passports, and threatens to “burn them alive” unless Japan decides to withdraw Ground Self-Defense Force troops from the southern Iraqi city Samawah within three days.
The government has steadfastly refused to withdraw the GSDF troops, despite the repeated pleas by the hostages’ relatives.
The families were overjoyed early Sunday morning by a Saraya al-Mujahideen statement sent via fax that the hostages would be released within 24 hours. Its decision was apparently made in response to a call from Iraq’s Muslim Clerics Association.
The statement said the group has realized that the hostages are “friendly foreign citizens” who have supported the Iraqi people.
Takato has worked with street children in Baghdad, and Imai is a representative of a nongovernmental organization calling for a ban on the use of depleted uranium rounds. The families have tearfully explained these facts in TV interviews aired in Iraq.
But hopes for a swift end to the ordeal were dashed as the hostage crisis dragged on for another day without any solid information on the whereabouts or safety of the hostages.
Meanwhile, late Sunday evening, Al-Jazeera aired an interview with a self-proclaimed mediator for the group who said the kidnappers’ demand for the GSDF withdrawal remained unchanged, and that they would start killing the hostages unless Tokyo decided to pull out the troops within the next 24 hours.
Government officials have questioned the credibility of the man’s statement.
On Monday night, the families of the hostages voiced frustration over the lack of information made available to them concerning the safety of their loved ones.
“We want the government to give us more information, including that with low credibility,” said Shuchi Takato, brother of Nahoko Takato.
Earlier in the day, the families held a series of meetings with senior leaders of the ruling and opposition parties, asking them to help arrange a meeting between them and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, according to Takato.
The government had received information that Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera was planning to air scenes Monday of the release of three Japanese taken hostage by militants in Iraq, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said.
Kawaguchi told a House of Representatives ad hoc committee on reconstruction assistance to Iraq that the Foreign Ministry was informed that the Qatar-based channel was going to broadcast the scene at 3 p.m. Monday Japan time.
Al-Jazeera, however, ended up not showing the footage and the fate of the hostages remains unclear.
“I want to refrain from talking about the content or why it was not broadcast,” Kawaguchi told the committee.
She was responding to questions by Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Seiji Maehara, who was seeking to find out if the rumor about the planned broadcast that was spreading among Diet members of both ruling and opposition parties was true.