Koizumi under pressure to pull troops out

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As the threatened deadline for the execution of three Japanese hostages in Iraq passed last night, there were conflicting signals about their fate.

As the threatened deadline for the execution of three Japanese hostages in Iraq passed last night, there were conflicting signals about their fate.

The Kyodo news agency reported that a person negotiating for their release told the Japanese government they were unharmed and near Fallujah. But the families of the freelance writer Noriaki Imai, the volunteer worker Nahoko Takato and the photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama were still waiting last night to see if they would be freed.

A group calling itself the Mujahedin Brigades seized them last week and had threatened to burn them to death yesterday unless Japan withdrew its troops from Samawah in southern Iraq and ended its support for the US-led coalition. The group sent video footage of masked men threatening the trio with guns and knives to the Arabic news channel al-Jazeera.

Representatives of the hostages' families yesterday handed in a petition of 130,000 signatures demanding that the Japanese government take action. Speaking to anti-war protesters in Tokyo, Ms Takato's sister Ayako said she wanted the troops withdrawn to "save the lives" of the three hostages. She said: "I beg you. Please don't let my sister die."

Japanese government sources said early yesterday that the three were "likely to freed by noon", citing reports on the al-Jazeera network and a senior Iraqi official. It is believed that Islamic clerics have intervened on behalf of the hostages.

But later there were reports that the Mujahedin Brigades were still holding the hostages and would kill them "one by one" unless the Japanese government apologised to the Iraqi people and withdrew its troops from the country. Ichiro Aisawa, a senior government official who is heading a hostage task force in Amman, Jordan, said negotiations were continuing with unspecified contacts and were at a "very sensitive stage".

Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, has said he will "not give in to terrorists" and has, so far, refused to meet the families. But with pictures of the three hostages and their distraught families filling TV screens across the country, and protesters outside the Japanese parliament calling for an end to Japan's involvement in Iraq, Mr Koizumi is under pressure to do more.

Hundreds of citizens groups, journalists and Mizuho Fukushima, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, have called for Japan's 550 Self-Defence Force (SDF) troops to be withdrawn from Iraq. Mrs Fukushima said: "Mr Koizumi breached the constitution by sending the SDF to Iraq and he is to blame for the kidnapping crisis. He should resign."

But Mr Koizumi will receive support for his position from Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, who is in Tokyo for an official visit. Mr Cheney will urge Mr Koizumi to stand firm in Iraq when he meets him today.

Meanwhile, a Kyodo poll found that more than 80 per cent of Japanese think Mr Koizumi would be responsible for the death or injury of any Japanese citizens in Iraq. A majority of 45 per cent said they opposed the government's policy of rejecting the demand to withdraw troops.