First the truce offer, and now this. The mujahedin seem to be feeling weak today.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Three Japanese hostages who had been threatened with death unless Tokyo withdrew its troops from Iraq were released Thursday, a day after militants executed an Italian captive.
The two aid workers and one journalist were released to a group of Islamic clerics that helped end the crisis after about a week in captivity, according to video from Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera. A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Tokyo said the three were unharmed.
Al-Jazeera showed aid worker Nahoko Takato weeping into her hands. Noriaki Imai, another aid worker, shook hands with one of the organization’s members, while photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama was nearby in the Baghdad office.
In Tokyo, the freed hostages’ families danced, hugged and cried with joy. Imai’s father, Takashi, sunk to his knees, leaving the boy’s brother to speak to an interviewer: “We just want to thank everyone who made this possible,” said Yosuku Imai.
The weeklong crisis tested Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. He had refused the captors’ demands to withdraw a contingent of troops helping with reconstruction.
Two other Japanese civilians – a freelance journalists and a civic group activist – have been reported seized, according to an e-mail received from “Iraqi sources” by the Japan Visual Journalist Association. Japan said Wednesday it was investigating the report.
The joy over the release of the Japanese also was tempered by shock in Italy after captors killed Italian security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi. He was the first known killing among nearly two dozen foreigners being held in Iraq.
The militants who killed Quattrocchi demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and threatened to kill three Italians, Al-Jazeera reported.
“The barbarian killing … strengthens Italy’s determination to bar hatred’s way and work for the real fulfillment of peaceful coexistence in Iraq,” Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said in a statement.
The death could further heighten fears among international aid workers, contractors and journalists, some of whom are already restricting their activities or leaving the country. An Associated Press count listed 19 current captives.
American experts, meanwhile, were conducting tests to determine whether four bodies discovered west of Baghdad are the remains of private U.S. contractors missing since an assault on their convoy Friday.
One of the missing – Thomas Hamill, a 43-year-old truck driver from Macon, Miss., – is known to have been abducted. His captors have threatened to kill and mutilate him unless U.S. troops ended their assault on Fallujah. The deadline passed Sunday with no word on his fate.
Al-Jazeera said it had video of Quattrocchi’s killing but did not broadcast it because it was too graphic.
The Italian ambassador to Qatar, where the network is based, watched the video and confirmed the man killed was Quattrocchi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
Frattini recounted the contents of the tape, apparently described to him by the ambassador.
“This boy, as the assassins were pointing the gun at him, tried to take off his hood and shouted: ‘Now I’ll show you how an Italian dies,'” Frattini said, adding, “He died as a hero.”
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has ruled out any troop withdrawal. “They have cut short a life. They have not damaged our values and our commitment to peace,” he said.
The captors demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, an apology from Berlusconi for an insult to Islam and Muslims and the release of religious clerics held in Iraq.
Three of the Italian captives were working for a U.S.-based company while a fourth was employed by a Seychelles-based firm, Frattini said.
He stressed that the four Italian hostages were not members of Italian intelligence and that the abductors were “terrorists and killers” who were “out of control” – not members of any organized resistance.
Italy is the third-largest coalition partner in the occupation force. Italy didn’t send in combat troops during the war. Its forces are based in the southern city of Nasiriyah, working on reconstruction.
In November, a suicide truck bomb attack in the southern city of Nasiriyah killed 19 Italians – Italy’s worst single military loss since World War II.
On Wednesday, a French TV journalist was freed unharmed at a mosque in Baghdad, saying he suffered constant threats to his life during a four-day captivity.
Alexandre Jordanov, who works for Capa Television in Paris, was kidnapped Sunday while videotaping a U.S. military convoy under attack. He was traveling with cameraman Ivan Ceriex, who was released the next day.
Jordanov, 40, said his abductors switched his location eight times, passing him from one armed group to another.
“It was: ‘We’re going to cut your throat’ to ‘You’re part of the Mossad,'” Jordanov said, referring to the Israeli secret service.
Russia on Thursday sent planes to Iraq to evacuate hundreds of Russian companies’ employees in a massive effort that followed the brief kidnapping of eight workers – three Russians and five Ukrainians.
About 800 specialists from Russia and the former Soviet republics are being evacuated.