• Compiled From Staff, Kyodo Reports

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An armed group in Iraq has taken a Japanese traveler hostage and threatened to kill him unless Tokyo withdraws its Self-Defense Forces troops from the country within 48 hours, government officials said in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi immediately rejected the demand by the militants, who are linked to al-Qaeda.

“We can’t tolerate terrorism. We can’t yield to terrorism,” Koizumi told reporters in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, where he was visiting the site of severe floods caused by last week’s Typhoon Tokage.

“Mr. Koizumi, they are demanding withdrawal of Japan’s SDF troops. They say otherwise they will behead me,” said Shosei Koda, 24, from Nogata, Fukuoka Prefecture, in a video message posted on a Web site. Part of the message was aired by public broadcaster NHK TV.

“I apologize,” he said in Japanese. “I want to go back to Japan again.”

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said a black banner with a message in Arabic hoisted behind Koda reads, “al-Qaeda Organization of Holy War of Mesopotamia.”

The Foreign Ministry has determined that the group is run by al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is said to be directing terrorist attacks in Iraq.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said the banner is similar to those appearing in video messages by other kidnap victims. He said that Al-Zarqawi has been involved in a total 15 hostage incidents since April.

The hostage crisis — the third involving Japanese in Iraq this year — could again put Koizumi in hot water. In the two earlier cases, which took place in April, all five captives were released unharmed.

The prime minister has dispatched hundreds of Ground Self-Defense Force troops to Iraq. Public opinion in Japan has been sharply divided over the issue.

Around 600 GSDF troops have been engaged in a humanitarian and reconstruction mission in Samawah, southern Iraq, since January. The troops were dispatched in part as a symbol of Japan’s commitment to its alliance with the United States.

The SDF’s current one-year mission in Iraq expires Dec. 14. The government has said it will consider the security situation and other factors before deciding whether to extend the mission.

Koda, with shoulder-length hair and wearing a white T-shirt, was identified in the video message as being connected to the Japanese troops. His captors said Koda was an “element following the Japanese troops.”

Officials in Tokyo denied Koda has any links to the Japanese government or the Self-Defense Forces.

One of the armed militants then read a statement, demanding the Japanese government withdraw its troops from Iraq in 48 hours, otherwise Koda’s fate would be the same as that of “his infidel predecessors Berg and Bigley,” a reference to the beheadings in Iraq of American Nick Berg and Briton Kenneth Bigley.

The video message on the Web site was first reported by Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera at 6:09 a.m Wednesday, Japan Time.

When exactly the 48-hour deadline will expire is not clear from the group’s statement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a regular news conference.

He said Tokyo had been unable to contact the group as of Wednesday afternoon. The whereabouts of the group and Koda are unknown, he added.

Machimura appeared in an interview with Al-Jazeera and other foreign media, urging the hostage-takers to release Koda as soon as possible.

“Japan is supporting Iraq’s effort to rebuild its country,” Machimura was quoted as saying by the Foreign Ministry. “The Self-Defense Forces troops have been dispatched to back such reconstruction efforts.

“Mr. Koda is a civilian who has nothing to do with the Self-Defense Forces or the government. Japan is a friend of Iraq.

“All Japanese people and I hope that Mr. Koda will be released as soon as possible.”

Government officials said Koda has been traveling for some time and has visited a number of countries.

He reportedly left Amman, Jordan, for Baghdad on Oct. 21, the officials said.

It is not known when or where Koda was captured by the militants.

The manager of a hotel in Amman where Koda spent a night last week said Koda ignored his warnings and departed Oct. 20 for Iraq by bus. He said Koda told him that he wanted to know what was going on in the country.

The manager said he confirmed Koda had arrived at a Baghdad hotel he referred him to, but added that Koda could not stay there because the rooms were fully booked.

Separately, testimonies by employees of a bus company and hotel in Baghdad indicate that Koda was in the Iraqi capital as of noon Sunday.

Koda’s parents, Masumi and Setsuko, released a statement in Fukuoka in which they pleaded to the captors to release their son.

They said Koda left Japan for New Zealand in January with a working holiday visa for one year. They said they have not been in contact with their son since July, but “never thought that he was in Iraq.”

“He did not seem to be interested in international affairs, and we are at a loss why he entered the country where the fighting is continuing,” they said in the statement.

Saying that Koda “did not necessarily support deployment of the Self-Defense Forces in Iraq or the U.S. policy there,” the parents said they “wish from the bottom of our heart that captors of Shosei would please release him.”

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