Japanese TV reporting on the hostage crisis (AFP)
From The Australian, with thanks to Nicolei:
IRAQI insurgents late last night reneged on an agreement to free three Japanese civilian hostages, threatening to start killing them today unless Japan withdraws its troops.
The threat to kill the first of the hostages within 24 hours was delivered through an Iraqi mediator and followed hours of conflicting reports about the release of the photographer and two volunteer workers.
The captors were “giving the Japanese Government a 24-hour ultimatum, not open to extension, after which they will execute a first,” Mezher al-Delaimi told Al-Jazeera TV.
“The death sentence will be applied to the others 12 hours later” unless Tokyo pulled its troops out of Iraq.
They had been expected to be freed at about 1pm AEST yesterday, after the withdrawal of earlier threats that they would be burnt alive if Japan did not pull out of the coalition force in Iraq.
The kidnappers, who identified themselves as the “Mujaheddin Squadron”, had said they had been convinced by Sunni clerics to release their captives unharmed. Angry demonstrations took place outside Japan’s parliament yesterday, demanding that the kidnappers’ demands be met.
The fate of US security guard Thomas Hamill, 43, was also unclear, after his captors promised he would meet a worse fate than the four American civilians killed in Fallujah on March 31, whose bodies were burned and mutilated by a mob, unless US forces ended their assault on the city “within 12 hours”.
That deadline passed shortly before a fragile ceasefire in the city was called last night in the tinderbox city west of Baghdad. Shortly after the US-brokered 12-hour pause took effect in Fallujah, however, an Apache attack helicopter was shot down and its two-man crew killed in Baghdad, two US Marines were wounded by snipers and an armed Iraqi was shot dead.
Two bloodied bodies shown on Al-Jazeera lying by a road, surrounded by Iraqis, were said to be those of murdered Americans.
A group calling itself the “Martyr Ahmed Yassin Brigades” claimed to have captured 30 hostages in Ramadi, west of Fallujah.
The statement, aired on Al-Arabiya television, showed no images of captives and there was no way to verify the group’s claim to be holding “Japanese, Bulgarians, Americans, Israelis, Spanish and Koreans, a total of 30 individuals”.
“If the siege of Fallujah is not lifted, we will cut off their heads,” says a masked man on the videotape. He also says his fighters killed four American soldiers and “we have their bodies”.
The tape shows an image of a body with bloodied khaki pants partially covered by a blanket.
Two members of Germany’s crack GSG-9 security police were missing, presumed dead, after being caught in a firefight near Fallujah last week.
Defence Minister Robert Hill acknowledged the “dangerous” situation in Iraq, saying he was surprised at how bad things were a year after Saddam Hussein’s fall. “I didn’t think it would be as bad as this,” Senator Hill told the Nine Network. “I thought that by now there would be an Iraqi leadership coming forward and Iraqi people taking greater control over a destiny that would have been a better destiny for themselves.”