Sunday, April 11, 2004

TOKYO — Vice President Dick Cheney will hold talks today with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi amid mounting public pressure here over the kidnapping of three Japanese nationals in Iraq.

Mr. Cheney will press the Japanese leader to stay the course in Iraq. Japan has supplied about 530 ground troops in the rebuilding efforts. About 1,100 Japanese soldiers are slated to be deployed in all.

U.S. officials said Mr. Cheney will express thanks for Japan’s support in the war on terrorism, including activities in Iraq, during a meeting with Mr. Koizumi.

Tokyo has said that it will not pull out Japanese troops because of the kidnapping, amid conflicting reports on the status of the hostages. Televised images of the captured Japanese have created a major political problem for the Koizumi government, which faced strong domestic opposition to its decision to join the U.S.-led postwar mission in Iraq.

One report here said the three captives had been let go, but Japan’s top government spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, said this morning that the government has no information on whether the three have been released.

Meanwhile, a senior Foreign Ministry official said he thinks that the three are still being held and that the government is trying its utmost to obtain their prompt release.

Mr. Cheney attended Easter church service at a nondenominational Protestant church with his wife, Lynne. He appeared in public briefly with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker after the service, but made no comments to reporters as he left.

The captors said they would kill the hostages after three days, but the deadline passed yesterday without word of their fate.

The issue will almost certainly come up in the meeting between Mr. Cheney and Mr. Koizumi today.

Japan’s Defense Ministry has three C-130 transport planes in Kuwait ready to airlift the Japanese civilians if they are freed, a ministry official told the Reuters news agency.

Mr. Cheney and Mr. Koizumi also are expected to discuss the North Korean nuclear problem. One issue will be an upcoming round of a “working group” of U.S., Japanese, Chinese, North Korean, South Korean and Russian officials. The group might meet later this month in Beijing.

Kevin Kellems, Mr. Cheney’s spokesman, said the vice president had kept in close contact with the White House and Bush administration officials on events in Iraq.

Mr. Cheney will meet tomorrow with Emperor Akihito before traveling to Beijing as part of the seven-day trip to Asia that includes a stop in South Korea.

Meanwhile, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that seven Chinese nationals had been kidnapped in central Iraq yesterday. The news agency quoted a Chinese diplomat in Baghdad as saying that the group had been abducted by armed gunmen.

China’s communist government opposed the U.S. use of force in Iraq last year.

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