Japan's hostage crisis intensified yesterday as hundreds of demonstrators called on Tokyo to withdraw its troops from Iraq to save the lives of three kidnapped Japanese civilians, while US Vice President Dick Cheney arrived for a visit urging Japan to stand firm against terrorist demands.
Ahead of today's looming deadline given by the captors for Japan to pull its soldiers out of Iraq or suffer the execution of the three captives, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi kept a low profile, not making any public appearances or remarks to the media. He declined requests by the families of the hostages for a meeting.
Ruling party officials vowed not to give in to terrorists and reiterated that Japanese soldiers would continue their humanitarian mission in Iraq. On Friday, Koizumi denounced as "cowardly" the Iraqi captors' threat to burn the three civilian hostages alive unless Tokyo gives in.
About 1,000 anti-war activists rallied in the capital to pressure the government to bow to kidnappers' demands and win the release of Noriaki Imai, 18, and Nahoko Takato, 34, both of whom are aid workers; and freelance journalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32.
"Free the hostages! Withdraw the Self Defense Forces!" activists shouted, using the official name for Japan's military, as a crowd gathered in front of the prime minister's official residence. Others held placards saying "Bring them home now!"
A few Buddhist monks dressed in yellow and white robes pounded on drums as the group faced a wall of police officers blocking the entrance to the residence.
A separate protest was planned for the evening after Cheney's arrival on the first stop of a regional tour that includes visits to China and South Korea.
Cheney is urging two Asian allies with troops in Iraq -- Japan and South Korea -- to stand fast and not bow to pressure from kidnappers.
"Our will is being tested in Iraq, as we have seen in the heavy fighting this week. Yet as Americans, we understand what is at stake," Cheney said during a refueling stop in Alaska. "Our own security and that of our friends in the region is directly dependent on our success."
Koizumi has stood firm in his refusal to consider pulling Japanese soldiers out of Iraq. He has sent a special envoy to Jordan to coordinate Japan's response to the hostage crisis, but Tokyo knows little about the previously unheard of group -- the "Mujahedeen Squadrons" -- that abducted the Japanese.
Japanese officials are expected to ask Cheney for help in trying to locate the hostages and secure their release. Koizumi and Cheney are not scheduled to meet until tomorrow.
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