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Japanese hostages freed { April 15 2004 }

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Thursday, April 15, 2004 Last updated 5:34 a.m. PT

Three Japanese hostages freed in Iraq


TOKYO -- Iraqi militants freed two aid workers and a journalist from Japan on Thursday, the Japanese foreign ministry said.

The three were handed over to the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad at 7:30 a.m. EDT, the ministry said in Tokyo.

The Arabic-language broadcaster al-Jazeera reported that the three had been taken first to the offices of the Islamic Clerics Committee, a Sunni Muslim organization that had mediated to end the crisis.

Al-Jazeera broadcast footage of the three sitting on a couch apparently speaking with members of the Sunni Muslim organization.

The three appeared unharmed. Nahoko Takato, a 34-year-old aid worker who worked with street children in Iraq, was crying into her hands.

Noriaki Imai, a recent high school graduate who was in the country trying to raise awareness about the health effects of depleted uranium munitions, shook hands with a member of the clerics' organization.

The third hostage, 32-year-old photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, was also shown.

The one-week crisis tested Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. The kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages if Japan did not withdraw a contingent of troops helping with reconstruction.

Koizumi refused that demand, saying he would not deal with terrorists and emphasizing that Japanese troops were in Iraq on a humanitarian mission.

The breakthrough was unexpected and came a day after Koizumi said that no progress had been made in negotiations.

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