It has been two weeks since four Japanese mining engineers were abducted in the central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan. The four men are among the dozen hostages being held by Islamic guerrillas. As things stand, it is not clear when, or even whether, a reasonable solution will be found, although the Muslim gunmen have demanded that official negotiations for the release of the hostages begin immediately.

The Japanese government must make every diplomatic effort to secure the safe return home of the four engineers. The question that lingers is why they could not stop working and leave the area before the incident occurred. All four had been dispatched to southern Kyrgyzstan under a government-funded program to promote cooperation in the development of natural resources. Their job was to study the feasibility of tapping mineral resources, such as gold and copper, in the region.

The project involves complicated arrangements. It comes under the control of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, but it is implemented by the Metal Mining Agency of Japan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency. However, the actual work is done by Overseas Mineral Resources Development Co., an affiliate of the mining agency. One of the four men belongs to that agency, and the rest are employees of a Mitsui Group mining company.

The responsibility for the safety of personnel in the area rests with JICA’s safety-management section, which reportedly concluded, before the incident occurred, that the project, now in its final third year, “can be continued.” The question is: What was the basis for that judgment?

The local situation became increasingly unstable in early August. According to officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, rebel soldiers abducted numerous residents in the Osh region’s Batken district, southern Kyrgyzstan. Local media reported Aug. 9 that an armed group had infiltrated Batken from neighboring Uzbekistan via Tajikistan. Several days later, the U.S. State Department issued a recommendation urging “self-restraint” on visitors to the region.

It was not until Aug. 23, however, following consultations with the MMAJ office in neighboring Kazakstan, that the Japanese engineers decided to withdraw. They were abducted approximately an hour after they notified local authorities of their decision.

Why the delay? Part of the answer may be that they are engineers, not experts in crisis management, and that their limited ability to speak the local language made it difficult to gather the necessary information. More important, however, may be the fact that there was no crisis-management system to support those engineers — or other Japanese working in dangerous places. They were left to make the pullout decision on their own.

Since the Japanese government is involved in this project, the Japanese ambassador to Kazakstan, who doubles as the envoy to Kyrgyzstan, should have promptly and accurately informed the engineers of security conditions in the area. In the absence of accurate information from Japanese authorities, U.S. information could have been tapped.

Central Asia is fraught with danger. Just last year, a Japanese member of the U.N. Mission of Observers in Tajikistan was killed by antigovernment rebels. It is time to work out new measures to secure the safety of Japanese working in high-risk regions abroad.

The four engineers are being held hostage by Islamic fundamentalist soldiers who call themselves the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement. The group is reportedly headed by the prime suspect in the attempted assassination of Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov in February this year. Numbering over 1,000 men, the organization is said to have more military equipment than the Kyrgyz Army — including high-tech weapons such as night-vision systems and satellite phones.

At the moment, negotiations for release of the hostages are under way, not at official government levels but through informal channels involving residents’ representatives and local administrators. With both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek governments taking a tough stance, however, there is no immediate prospect of a breakthrough.

Japan has been promoting “Eurasian diplomacy,” including relations with Russia. It has also been taking an active part in the development of underground resources in Central Asia. The abduction case, coming as it did in the early stages of an important geological survey, has dealt a heavy blow to the project. It is time for the Japanese government to start rebuilding its overseas crisis-management system.

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