Three Japanese hostages set free in Iraq

Three Japanese hostages were released in Iraq today and are in good health, with the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera showing them sitting on sofas and arm chairs in a Baghdad office.

The station, monitored in Cairo, said the two aid workers and a journalist were free as "the guests of Muslim scholars" in Baghdad.

In Tokyo, the national broadcaster NHK reported Japanese government confirmation of their release.

The three Japanese civilians were taken hostage in Iraq last week by militants who threatened to kill them unless Japan withdraws its non-combat troops from southern Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had refused, insisting the soldiers will complete their humanitarian mission.

A video released last Thursday showed the three - two men and a woman - blindfolded before captors armed with rifles and swords. They threatened to burn the Japanese to death in three days unless Tokyo pulled out troops on a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq.

The video included scenes of the gunman making the captives lie on the floor and pointing swords and knives at their chests and throats.

The kidnappers had identified themselves as the "Mujahedeen Brigades," one of several shadowy groups in Baghdad claiming to be fighting the U.S.-led coalition. Some espouse Iraqi nationalism and others seem inspired by anti-Western, militant Islamic thought.

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