Insurgents threaten to burn hostages

Eight South Koreans and three Japanese were kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq, and captors armed with automatic rifles and swords threatened on Thursday to burn the Japanese alive if Tokyo does not withdraw from the United States-led coalition.

The Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera, broadcasting to Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, showed portions of a tape from a previously unknown group calling itself the “Mujahedeen Squadrons” showing the Japanese blindfolded and surrounded by gunmen. It also shows their passports.

Associated Press Television News obtained a copy of the full tape, which also shows four armed, masked men pointing knives and swords at the captives’ chests and throats.

The South Koreans, believed to be Christian ministers who left for Iraq on April 5, were detained by unidentified “armed men” but one escaped, a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap identified them as Huh Min Young, Lim Young Seok, Hong Gwang Cheon, Cho Jeong Kyon, Lee Myung Sook, Kim Pil Ja and Byun Kyong Ja. It said they are believed to be evangelists from the Christian Council of Korea.

The one who escaped, identified as Kim Sang Mi, told Korean news media that her group was travelling in two cars on a highway from Amman, Jordan, and was stopped 250km west from the Iraq capital.

“Around one-and-a-half hours before our arrival in Baghdad, we were seized by strangers,” she said.

She said armed men took them captive after checking their passports, suggesting the seizure might be connected to South Korea’s plans to send 3 600 troops to Iraq.

The videotape, parts of which also were shown on Japan’s NHK television, showed two Japanese men and a woman identified as two aid workers and a journalist.

On Al-Jazeera, an announcer read a statement that he said came with the video in which the kidnappers issue a three-day ultimatum for Japan to announce it will withdraw its troops from southern Iraq.

“Three of your sons have fallen into our hands,” the Al-Jazeera announcer read. “We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces, or we will burn them alive. We give you three days starting the day this tape is broadcast.”

The full video shows the Japanese crouched on the floor of a concrete walled room with an iron door. Four masked men dressed in black stand behind them holding automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The gunmen make the Japanese lay one by one on the floor, and point swords and knives at their chests and throats. The woman’s lips can be seen moving as if speaking.

The gunmen then show passports identifying the three as Noriaki Imai, born 1985; Soichiro Koriyama (32); and Nahoko Takato (34). They also show a press card for Koriyama from the weekly newspaper Asahi.

Japan has about 530 ground troops based in Samawah, part of a total planned deployment of 1 100 soldiers for a mission in Iraq to purify water and carry out other reconstruction tasks. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been one of the strongest backers of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

About 460 South Korean medics and military engineers have been in Nasiriyah for almost a year. They are to come home after South Korea’s planned deployment of up to 3 600 troops to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq later this year.

The kidnappings came amid escalating violence in Iraq. Earlier this week, two South Korean aid workers were briefly detained by Shiite Muslim forces during a gunbattle with Italian peacekeepers.

They were released unharmed.—Sapa-AP

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