Zarqawi group abducts Japanese hostage in Iraq
DUBAI, Oct 26 (Reuters) - A group led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi threatened to behead a Japanese hostage it said worked with Japanese forces in Iraq if Tokyo did not withdraw its forces from the country within 48 hours.
"We grant the Japanese government 48 hours to withdraw its troops from Iraq or this infidel will meet the same fate as Berg ... and the other infidels," Al Qaeda Organisation of Holy War in Iraq said in an Internet video on Tuesday, referring to American Nick Berg who was beheaded by the group in May.
"One of the elements belonging to the Japanese forces fell captive in the hands of Al Qaeda Organisation of Holy War in Iraq. It became evident he had gone to Israel and Jordan before Iraq and we will show the documents after his family and government identify him," a masked man said on the video.
It was not clear from the militant's Arabic comments whether the Japanese man was a soldier.
Japan's deployment of around 550 non-combat troops to Samawa, 270 km (168 miles) south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, for humanitarian and reconstruction work has divided the Japanese public, with critics saying it violates Japan's pacifist constitution.
Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima told Reuters it was still trying to confirm the information on the video: "Unfortunately, there is no independent report from our side."
Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted the Defence Ministry as saying there had been no report of anything unusual related to Japanese troops stationed at Samawa. Japanese public broadcaster NHK quoted the vice defence minister as saying the ministry was checking if anyone from its troops Iraq was missing.
Kyodo said Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had ordered government ministries to gather information and NKH said the government has set up a crisis centre at the prime minister's office.
The video, which was posted by a Web site often used by militants, showed the anxious hostage seated in front of three masked men and a black banner bearing the group's name.
"They are asking why the Japanese government ... sent its troops to Iraq. They want the Japanese government and Prime Minister Koizumi to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq or they will cut my head (off)," said the hostage who was wearing a white shirt. He spoke in English and then in Japanese.
Japanese television showed excerpts of him saying in Japanese: "I want to go back again to Japan."
As one militant read out a statement, another grabbed the hostage by the hair and pulled his head up to face the camera.
Zarqawi's group is blamed for Iraq's bloodiest suicide bombings and hostage beheadings. The Jordanian militant, Washington's top foe in Iraq, last week pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.