Japanese PM was 'missing' for four hours

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Keizo Obuchi, the outgoing Japanese Prime Minister, disappeared for four hours after suffering a stroke on Sunday and was out of contact with his government as aides tried desperately to cover up his critical condition, The Independent has learnt. The revelation came yesterday as his successor, Yoshiro Mori, was sworn in as Prime Minister, three days after Mr Obuchi's sudden collapse.

In an extraordinary sequence of events on Sunday morning, shortly after midnight, the ailing Prime Minister travelled to hospital in an unarmoured minivan driven by his personal doctor, without his complement of bodyguards and without the knowledge of any members of the government.

Mikio Aoki, the cabinet secretary who took over as acting prime minister, said he was not informed of Mr Obuchi's condition until more than four hours after the 62-year-old Prime Minister was first taken ill. During that time, Mr Obuchi was accompanied only by his wife and a junior secretary.Akitaka Saiki, Mr Obuchi's deputy press secretary, said yesterday: "The Prime Minister's health condition immediately impacts on the political situation. I think that's the main reason his aides wanted to have a minimum amount of information provided."

The government has already been criticised for waiting more than 22 hours before announcing Mr Obuchi's illness. Mr Aoki has insisted he was waiting for the results of tests before making an announcement, but there is suspicion that he was buying time to consult officials of Mr Obuchi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

However, the latest revelations suggest an even more alarming scenario: that Mr Obuchi's personal security was compromised to conceal he had been taken to hospital. Yesterday, the Prime Minister's office and the Tokyo police were unable to say whether any bodyguards had accompanied him to the infirmary.

Mr Obuchi first complained of illness in the first few minutes of Sunday, and his personal doctor, Hidehiko Hisaoka of Juntendo Hospital, was called to his official residence. Mr Obuchi was conscious at the time and Dr Hisaoka drove to the hospital in his minivan, arriving at about 1am.

Mr Aoki says he saw the Prime Minister at 7pm on Sunday and was asked by him to take over as acting Prime Minster, which he did the following day. By the official account, Mr Obuchi's condition worsened half an hour later, and within two hours he had fallen into a coma from which he has not emerged. But the only witness to this exchange was Mr Obuchi's wife, who has not spoken to reporters since her husband's illness.

Mr Obuchi's condition was described yesterday as "stable but still critical" but, by last night, he had already been consigned to political history. Yoshiro Mori, 62, was comfortably elected as the new Prime Minister by the LDP-led coalition, which has a majority in both houses of parliament. Shortly after his election, Mr Mori said: "I will follow Prime Minister Obuchi's path. That is why I reappointed all the cabinet ministers to their posts."