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The four Japanese mining engineers and their Kyrgyz translator who had been held hostage by Islamic rebels were released Monday after 63 days of captivity. The five men, the last of 13 hostages seized in August by the militants, were healthy and in good spirits. We extend our thanks and congratulations to the government of Kyrgyzstan for securing their safe release.

The kidnapping is the second mishap to befall Japanese nationals in Central Asia. In July 1998, Yutaka Akino, a specialist in the region, was ambushed and murdered in Tajikistan, along with three other members of a United Nations observer mission. The tragedy underscored an unpleasant truth: While there are many hazardous places in the world, Central Asia is one of the most dangerous and unpredictable. That grim reality cannot be used as an excuse to withdraw from a critical part of the world, however. Japan has decided — rightly — to make Central Asia a foreign-policy priority. The government should not change course, but it must make every effort to ensure that its personnel are protected when they go to work.

The four geologists were working in Kyrgyzstan for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, attempting to help the country develop its mineral resources. The actual work arrangements were complicated: Although the assignment came under the authority of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the men were JICA representatives, ostensibly working for the Overseas Mineral Resources Development Co. If that is not confusing enough, only one of the four is a bona fide employee of that last organization; the other three are employees of a Mitsui Group mining company. This convoluted chain raises questions about who was in the best position to make decisions about safety and remaining at their jobs.

Both the men and the Japanese government knew there were risks involved. Even before the kidnapping, the local situation had become unstable, yet it was decided to continue the project. The men later decided to pull out of the area, but by then it was too late: An hour later, they were seized by the guerrillas.

Why did they wait so long? Apparently, the final decision belonged to the engineers. Deferring to personnel on the ground is a sound general principle, but in this case it seems to have been inappropriate. These men are mining engineers, not political specialists, and do not speak the Kyrgyz language. The Japanese government should have had intelligence far superior to that available to the engineers and should have been able to use it to protect them. Clearly, a better crisis prevention and management program is needed.

“Should have had” is not the same as did, however. Although Japan has decided to devote considerable attention to Central Asia, this country has not developed the diplomatic and intelligence infrastructure that is necessary for any policy to be effective. For example, despite making the region a priority, the country has not set up embassies in each of the Central Asian capitals. Without this investment of resources, Japanese nationals will continue to be vulnerable to threats and attacks, and diplomatic objectives will be frustrated.

Central Asia is worth the attention. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of the region have assumed a new significance — more appropriately, they have reclaimed their former role as the crossroads of civilizations. They straddle the divide between East and West, the Persian Gulf and the Russian hinterland. If estimates of Caspian Sea oil reserves are accurate — and the jury is still out — the region could eclipse the Persian Gulf in strategic significance. Even if those numbers are overstated, Central Asia still has enormous mineral wealth.

Just as important is the region’s political significance. Most of its inhabitants are followers of Islam; they are by no means fundamentalists, however. Strong secular governments in Central Asia will block the spread of radical Islam from nations such as Iran and Afghanistan. The chief fear of governments in Moscow and Beijing is that fundamentalists will come to power in the south and work their way north, and then spread east into China and west into Russia. That concern was behind the summit of leaders from Russia, China and Central Asia that was held last August in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

The problem is that the measures those governments are contemplating — greater military cooperation — will only treat the symptoms, not the causes, of the unrest. Economic development and greater prosperity will do more to isolate the fundamentalists than will any military campaign. That is what Japan was trying to do; that is what Japan should continue to do. Only now, it should do it better.

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