The government was thrown into confusion Saturday over the fate of a Japanese man who had been taken hostage by militants in Iraq threatening to kill him unless Japan withdraws its ground troops from the country.

In a hastily arranged news conference in the predawn hours of Saturday, officials had said that a body whose physical features partially matched those of Shosei Koda had been found Friday in Balad, north of Baghdad.

However, a body transported to Kuwait from Iraq by the U.S. military later in the day and shown to a Japanese medical staffer was not that of Koda, said Foreign Ministry Press Secretary Hatsuhisa Takashima.

In response to further inquiries from Japan, the U.S. confirmed that the body sent to Kuwait was the one found in Balad, Takashima said.

He acknowledged that the initial description of the body provided by the U.S. military was inaccurate.

“It is virtually impossible for us to individually verify the information so (the confusion) was inevitable,” Takashima said. “We do not intend to criticize (the U.S.) because it gave us wrong information.”

“We are now back to the starting point,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda. “We may have some things that we need to reflect on . . . concerning communications,” an apparent reference to the confusion about the information on the hostage.

Hosoda said the teeth of the body in Kuwait as well as other physical descriptions did not match those of Koda’s.

“A medical staffer at the Japanese Embassy in Kuwait judged that this body is not that of Mr. Koda,” Hosoda said. “We need to do our utmost to continue gathering information to rescue Mr. Koda.”

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking to reporters at his temporary residential quarters in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, also said the government will keep utmost efforts to rescue Koda.

Quoting the report by Keiichi Hotta, the medical official at the embassy in Kuwait, Takashima said the body had a damaged face with a beard and appeared to be that of a man about 50 years old, with no sign of past dental treatment.

The body was slightly overweight and about 175 to 180 cm in height — taller than Koda, Takashima said. The head was bald and the body was dressed in clothes that “looked Arabian,” he added.

In a video message posted on a Web site by his captors Wednesday morning, Koda had shoulder-length hair and wore a white T-shirt.

Koda, who is known to have entered Iraq on a bus from Amman on Oct. 21 to “see what was going on” in the war-torn country, is believed to have been abducted in or around Baghdad early last week.

On Wednesday, a radical group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a known al-Qaeda ally, posted the video message showing Koda and threatening to kill him unless Japan pulls the Ground Self-Defense Force troops out of Iraq within 48 hours.

Koizumi immediately rejected the demand.

The captors have not released a new statement relating to Koda after the video message, Takashima said.

According to Takashima, the U.S. military told the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad early Saturday that it found a body matching descriptions Tokyo had provided to the U.S. after Koda’s abduction came to light.

The U.S. military said the body’s height, weight and a bald patch on the back of the head matched that of Koda, Takashima told the early Saturday news conference.

According to an Associated Press report, the Tikrit Joint Coordination Center of the U.S. military was notified early Friday by an anonymous tip that the body of an Asian male had been brought to the Tikrit Hospital.

A patrol from the 1st Infantry Division arrived at the hospital and recovered the body, bringing it to a mortuary at a forward operating base in Tikrit, about 80 km north of Balad, the AP reported.

Family relieved

FUKUOKA (Kyodo) The family of hostage Shosei Koda breathed a sigh of relief Saturday as a body initially believed to be his turned out to be that of a different person, according to an official of Nogata, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Koda has been held hostage by Islamic extremists in Iraq.

Koda’s father, Masumi, while appearing flustered at the conflicting information over the fate of his 24-year-old son, said, “Now we can continue to hope that he is still alive,” according to the municipal official.

The official who visited Koda’s home told reporters that when news came early Saturday that a body found in Iraq appeared to be Koda’s, Masumi, 54, said he felt as if he had been “thrown into the abyss.”

Following the news in the afternoon that the body was not Koda’s, Masumi said he could have “a certain amount of hope” but also said he cannot be happy because he still does not know what has happened to his son, the official said.

Masakazu Shirotani, a 24-year-old company employee who attended the same elementary and junior high school as Koda, said he was shocked to hear the news in the morning and feels helpless at not being able to do anything for his friend.

“But for now, I will just pray for his safety and believe that he is safe,” Shirotani said.

According to a source close to the family, Koda’s mother, Setsuko, 50, said in the morning, “I believe my son is still alive.”

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