Red Army arrests bring Japan's media brigade to Beirut, then trail goes cold

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First the actors: five ageing members of the Japanese Red Army, an equally pensioned-off Hizbollah leader, a Japanese government security unit, the Lebanese foreign and interior ministers, up to 100 Japanese journalists, a female Lebanese acupuncturist and a large number of mysterious plain-clothes security agents. The scene: Beirut. The play: a farce in three acts.

Act One, dear reader, seems the most sensible. In the early hours of 15 February, security agents arrest four Japanese men, a Japanese woman and a Lebanese woman. The Independent can confirm that one of the Japanese was taken from his third-floor home in the Rajah Saab building in the Mazraa district by men claiming to work for Lebanese "state security police" at three in the morning. Plain-clothes cops - if that is what they were - surrounded the apartment block, forcing the concierge to let them in and then departing with the Japanese man, possibly a Japanese woman as well, and a truck load of "machines" (to quote one eyewitness) which may or may not have been printing-presses to forge visas and passports.

Elsewhere in Beirut, two more Japanese are seen being arrested. So is one in the Bekaa, and - at a different location in the valley - Omaya Aboud, the 35-year old acupuncturist. She is taken to Zahle, where her family sees her in a prison cell, and then she disappears. So too do the five Japanese. But two days later - on 17 February - the Japanese prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, announces that the Lebanese have arrested up to six members of the Japanese Red Army, the radical, pro-Palestinian - and very vicious - movement which claimed responsibility for a series of attacks and hijackings in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in the 1970s. Its cruellest assault was at Tel Aviv airport where in 1972 a Red Army squad, including a man called Kozo Okamoto, machine-gunned to death 20 pilgrims and wounded another 100 civilians.

Within hours of Mr Hashimoto's revelation - and Japan's instructions to its embassies to bolt all doors for fear of revenge attacks - Lebanese officials let it be known that they had indeed arrested five Red Army members, including the now 49-year-old Okamoto. Out of Tokyo flies a Japanese security team, en route to Beirut with instructions to arrange the extradition of the wanted Red Army members. Also arriving in Beirut are up to 100 Japanese reporters and camera crews. The Lebanese foreign minister, Farez Bouiez, says the Japanese are being "interrogated". And who knows, maybe the long-hoped-for Japanese investment in Lebanon's post-war reconstruction will be forthcoming at last. End of Act One.

Act Two opens with a Lebanese journalist observing that "there are more Japanese here than participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor", a remark which made up in passion what it lacked in accuracy. More than 180 Japanese pilots took part in the attack on the United States naval base, 29 of whom failed to return to their six aircraft carriers. But Admiral Yamamoto probably spent less money bringing America into the Second World War than the Japanese press are coughing up in Lebanon for their fleets of hire cars, mobile phones and armies of interpreters.

The journalistes nippons - as the French-language press here delicately puts it - have been touring the villages of the Bekaa Valley searching for another 40 alleged Red Army members whom the Israelis claim live there. An odd lead, perhaps, since the Israelis - incredibly - themselves released Okamoto in a 1985 prisoner exchange.

Lebanese village women have been seen giving the Hitler salute to the cruising Japanese scribes and cheerfully shouting "jesh ahmar" - "Red Army" - at the stunned journalists. And in the Beirut law courts, berobed barristers have been astonished to see batteries of equally earnestJapanese reporters shouting "mush-mush" into their mobile phones. In Japanese, mush-mush means hallo. In Arabic, it means apricot. Why on earth were the Japanese ordering fruit from Tokyo over the telephone? At the Lebanese foreign ministry, the exasperated Japanese ambassador, Yasuji Ishikagi, was told that the Lebanese knew nothing of the Japanese detainees - who are also supposed to include Mariko Yamamoto, Kazuo Tohira, Masao Adachi and Hisashi Matsuda - even though minister Bouiez had earlier said they were being interrogated.

Act Three is dire indeed. Rumours - of varying degrees of sanity - wash through the Lebanese press corps. Syria ordered the arrests because it believed the Red Army had bombed a civilian bus in Damascus at Christmas - a crime for which Israel and Turkey have also been blamed. Or Syria knew nothing - a likely tale indeed - but is angry that it was not informed of the arrests nor of the gratitude that might be earned from the Japanese. Or that Syria wanted to get taken off the US list of states that "support terrorism" by picking up the Red Army bad guys. Or that a lone member of the Lebanese state security police had ordered the arrests without telling the interior minister Michel Murr, who now claims he knows absolutely nothing about any Japanese being held anywhere. Or that prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the overall commander of "state security", was trying to elicit Japanese investment. Or that Father Christmas exists.

In the Bekaa, Sheikh Sobhi Tofaili, a former Hizbollah leader, demands Okamoto's release on the grounds that he was the author of "the heroic attack" at Tel Aviv. In Japan, the Red Army supposedly warns the Lebanese to release its members. But does this threat come from the Red Army, asks the Lebanese press? Or from the Japanese government pretending to be the Red Army? Ms Aboud's family demand to know where acupuncturist Omaya is, insisting that she has nothing to do with the Red Army (which anyway normally carried out acupuncture by riddling people with bullets).

Last night, President Hrawi (father-in-law of Bouiez) was demanding an explanation from the government. Prime minister Hariri, just returned from visiting the Pope, was asking much the same. Lebanese public security director Raymond Raphael, who has sensibly kept his own surete force out of the whole mess, once said that security organisations were like "a fisherman's net - when you drop it into the ocean, it collects a large variety of fish". But whether in Beirut or Damascus, these particular fish are beginning to smell.