The apparent kidnapping of a Japanese man by a militant group in Iraq will not affect Tokyo’s troop deployment there, Japan’s defence chief said today as officials vowed to make every effort to win his release.
The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed on its website it had kidnapped Akihiko Saito, 44, after ambushing a group of five foreign contractors. It said Saito was “seriously injured” in the fighting and that the others had died.
The site carried a photocopy of his passport, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed it was authentic, but said officials were still rushing to verify information about the case.
The incident will not affect Japan’s deployment of 550 troops on a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq, defence chief Yoshinori Ono said, adding that the safety of those troops had been confirmed.
“At the moment, it won’t affect the activities of Self-Defence Forces in Samawah,” he said.
The government set up a task force at the Foreign Ministry to deal with the reported kidnapping.
“We are hurrying to confirm Mr Saito’s whereabouts, and if his reported seizure or serious injury turns out to be true, we must move urgently,” Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said. “For now, our top priority is to gather accurate information.”
The ministry confirmed it received information from a British security firm Hart GMSSCO that Saito, a company consultant at its Baghdad office, was ambushed while travelling by car with more than 10 other people in western Iraq on Sunday and went missing. Several of them had reportedly died.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a news conference: “We are acting as though the information is true about the ambush.”
But he said the government had not been contacted by anyone claiming responsibility.
The US military in Iraq had no information on the report of a captured Japanese citizen, coalition spokesman Staff Sgt Nick Minecci said. Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said that Saito had entered Iraq in December 2004, but he could not yet confirm his kidnapping.
Japan’s Kyodo News agency said Saito was employed by a security firm from Cyprus and may have been working as a security officer at a US facility. Kyodo also reported that Saito was a Japanese army paratrooper for two years, and Takashima said Saito had also been with the French Foreign Legion for over 20 years.
The Ansar al-Sunnah Army is believed to be a breakaway faction of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish-led group with links to al-Qaida. It has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Iraqi security forces and twin suicide bombings targeting Kurds in Irbil that killed 109 people in 2004.
The Ansar al-Sunnah Army also has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings of foreigners. In an internet posting last August, it claimed it killed 12 Nepalese construction workers after taking them hostage.
Kyodo quoted Ono as saying the Ansar al-Sunnah Army had distributed leaflets in February outside the Japanese camp in Samawah criticising the troops, calling them “Dirty Buddhists” collaborating with the US. The Defence Agency refused to confirm the report.
Shosei Koda, a 24-year-old Japanese backpacker visiting Baghdad, was taken hostage last October and beheaded when Japan’s government refused to bow to demands by his kidnappers that it withdraw its troops from Iraq. A gruesome video of his murder posted on the internet said he was kidnapped by followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Five other Japanese were taken hostage in April 2004 but were later freed unharmed.
Those incidents fuelled opposition in Japan to the government’s unpopular dispatch of its troops for humanitarian mission in southern Iraq.
About 500 soldiers are stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah purifying water, rebuilding infrastructure and offering medical aid since early 2004. The mission, combined with air and naval troops backing up the dispatch, is Japan’s largest overseas military deployment since the Second World War.
Many Japanese have criticised the deployment as being a violation of Japan’s pacifist constitution and for making Japan a target for terrorism.