BAGHDAD – A Japanese traveler taken hostage by an Islamic militant group in Iraq was probably kidnapped in or around Baghdad, local sources said Thursday.
Shosei Koda, 24, who entered Iraq last Thursday, had said he was going to visit Samawah, where Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force troops are stationed. But the sources said that no one has reported seeing him at hotels or bus terminals in the southern Iraqi city.
Police in Samawah also said they have no reports of him. It is relatively easy to spot a stranger in the city, one senior police officer said.
Vice Foreign Minister Shuzen Tanigawa arrived in Amman from Japan on Thursday to head a task force to deal with the abduction.
A group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claims to be holding Koda and has threatened to kill him unless Japan pulls its Self-Defense Forces troops out of Iraq within 48 hours.
A video message from the group, showing Koda surrounded by three masked militants making a plea to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, was posted on the Internet at about 2:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, Japan time.
The Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Koda entered Iraq on Oct. 21 aboard a bus from Amman. He was seen at hotels and bus terminals in Baghdad every day until Sunday, local workers said.
He might have used taxis or other transportation on Sunday or later, but some witnesses said he did not have enough money to buy a bus ticket back to Amman.
Between Oct. 21 and Sunday, Koda looked for a room in Baghdad, but most hotels do not accept foreigners for fear their establishments could be targeted by armed groups.
The handful of foreign journalists and aid workers in Iraq are staying at expensive and heavily guarded hotels.
It is extremely dangerous for foreigners to walk on the streets of Baghdad because armed groups are looking for potential targets, local security sources said.
An employee of the company operating the bus that brought Koda to Baghdad said that the young man was showing people around him a piece of paper with Casablanca Hotel written on it and asking for directions.
A receptionist at the Casablanca Hotel, located in the city center, said he refused Koda accommodation when he came to the hotel on Friday because he was a foreigner.
On Saturday, Koda returned to the west bank of the Tigris River and the same bus terminal he had arrived at and tried to book a seat to return to Amman on Sunday. But the bus was full.
A bus terminal employee said he recommended that Koda reserve a seat on Monday’s bus, but Koda told him that he only had $20 left.
A bus ticket to Amman from Baghdad costs 20,000 Iraqi dinars (about 1,500 yen). The ticket purchase would therefore not have left him with enough money to pay for a decent hotel room.
A taxi driver who saw Koda at the bus terminal said the he “was looking around and seemed scared.”
Shortly before noon on Sunday, Koda visited another hotel near the Casablanca Hotel and asked for a room; he was rejected again. The receptionist there said he advised Koda to go to the Palestine Hotel or another luxury hotel that accepted foreigners.
A local resident said he saw a person matching Koda’s description walking down a street to the Palestine Hotel carrying a backpack and a camera shortly before noon.
Earlier this year, Koda arrived in Amman from New Zealand via Israel.
In Tel Aviv, he stayed at a cheap dormitory where he met a Frenchman who had come from Iraq, according to an Israeli man who shared a room with them.
Koda told him that he was going back to New Zealand but wanted to go to Jordan first, the Israeli said. Koda seemed very interested in the Frenchman’s experiences in Baghdad, he said.
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