Hong Kong 'sighting' offers new hope in search for Lucie

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The search for Lucie Blackman, the British woman who went missing in Tokyo two months ago, took a new twist yesterday when an Australian research chemist said he saw someone "very like" her withdrawing money from a cash machine in Hong Kong.

The search for Lucie Blackman, the British woman who went missing in Tokyo two months ago, took a new twist yesterday when an Australian research chemist said he saw someone "very like" her withdrawing money from a cash machine in Hong Kong.

The scientist, Keith Bobbermein, said he saw the woman in July. She was shouting incoherently and talking gibberish. Her father, Tim Blackman, who recently returned to his home in the Isle of Wight after several fruitless weeks in Japan, said last week that he believed his daughter had been kidnapped with four other Western women and smuggled to Hong Kong, possibly to be sold into sex slavery.

This was based on an unconfirmed and anonymous tip that the former British Airways stewardess had been spirited out of Japan.

Yesterday Mr Blackman said he had spoken to Mr Bobbermein, "and he seems very credible". The family would be checking whether the cash machine was in an area with closed-circuit television, in the hope of getting pictures of the woman, adding: "The date seems a wee bit too early for us and he was describing someone a bit shorter, but you can never be quite sure."

Ms Blackman, whose 22nd birthday was on Friday, left her job with BA and flew to Japan on 4 May with her childhood friend, Louise Phillips. Within a few days, both had jobs at the Casablanca club in Tokyo's nightlife district, Roppongi, as hostesses.

In most such establishments the women's job is to talk to male customers, usually work colleagues out on the town, light their cigarettes and flatter them. They are encouraged, however, to go out to dinner with valued clients before bringing them to the club later.

On 1 July Ms Blackman disappeared after meeting an unknown man, apparently a customer of the club, on her day off. The following day Ms Phillips received a telephone call from a Japanese man who identified himself by the name Akira Takagi, claiming her friend was undergoing "training" with a new-age religion in Chiba prefecture, west of Tokyo. He has never been traced.

Mr Blackman and Lucie's younger sister Sophie immediately went to Japan, but despite their vigorous campaigning, British Government support and a reward for information swelled to £100,000 by an anonymous donor, virtually no concrete information has emerged. A letter, purportedly from Ms Blackman, said she had gone voluntarily with the cult, but although it contained information known only to her and close friends, the signature was false.

More recently Japanese news magazines reported the suicide of a 52-year-old man who had been questioned about her disappearance. His body was found in a secret apartment filled with sado-masochistic pornography and missing-person posters bearing Ms Blackman's photograph, but police sources now say they do not believe he had any connection with the case.

No ransom demand for the missing hostess has been made, and as the weeks pass her family must be fearing that she will share the fate of Tiffany Fordham, a Canadian who was the last Western bar hostess to go missing in Roppongi. She disappeared in 1997, and was never heard of again.

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