For three hostages, a joyful release

JAPAN: Public's anger with Koizumi gives way to relief
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"I'm sorry for causing trouble." Such were the first words spoken by the released Japanese hostage Nahoko Takato, as she called her mother to let her know the week-long ordeal at the hands of her Iraqi abductors was over.

Ms Takato, 34, her fellow aid worker Noriaki Imai, 18, and the photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32, were delivered unharmed yesterday to a group of Islamic clerics who had intervened on their behalf. They were then taken to the Japanese embassy in Baghdad, where television footage showed them dazed, tearful and happy.

Back home in Japan, where many of their relatives had been holed up in a government building since Wednesday last week to monitor their fate minute-by-minute, the news was greeted with more tears, hugs and little dances of joy. "I'm so happy I can't stand it," said Ms Takato's mother, Kyoko. "I've been waiting so long for this." She added: "Government officials did their best. I was encouraged when people in Japan and the world supported us."

Their release was greeted with relief all over Japan, not least in the office of the Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, where pressure had been mounting to withdraw Japanese forces from Iraq to guarantee the hostages' safety. Just hours before their release, Mr Koizumi had been obliged to reiterate his commitment to the Japanese presence following unconfirmed reports that another two Japanese nationals had been seized.

An e-mail received by the national television journalists' association suggested that a freelance journalist and a civil rights activist had been abducted, and government officials said they were investigating whether the report was true.

Among those who had been calling for a withdrawal of Japan's Self-Defence Force was Takashi Imai, the father of 18-year-old Noriaki. Amid the jubilation surrounding the news of his son's release - at one point he sank to his knees - he acknowledged that he and the other relatives echoing his call had been wrong. "We would like to apologise to Koizumi and express our appreciation," he told reporters in the Tokyo offices of the Hokkaido regional government. The three Japanese nationals were seized last week as they were on their way out of the country.

A taxi driver taking them from Baghdad to Amman, the Jordanian capital, took a detour north of Fallujah to avoid trouble but was stopped near the town of Sabalbur, according to an account he gave to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun.

Several masked men carrying Kalashnikovs pulled the three out of the taxi and detained them for about an hour before ordering them into a Japanese-made truck and driving away. The taxi driver was released but warned that he would be killed if he talked about the incident.

Their release was negotiated by a Sunni group called the Committee of Muslim Scholars. It was not immediately clear how the group became involved, or how they engineered the hostages' release.