JAPAN: Japanese Security Specialist Kidnapped in Iraq

Japanese officials scrambled to find information on the kidnapping of a 44-year-old Japanese security specialist working as a consultant for Hart Security Ltd., a Cyprus-based security contractor.

The government scrambled Tuesday to find information on the kidnapping of a 44-year-old Japanese security specialist after Iraqi militants claimed to have captured him in an ambush in western Iraq.

The man, a former Ground Self-Defense Force soldier and French legionnaire, was identified on a Web site of the Ansar al-Sunnah Army as Akihiko Saito, a consultant for Hart Security Ltd., a Cyprus-based security contractor.

Senior officials of the Foreign Ministry rushed to the ministry's operation center early Tuesday to confirm the kidnapping, but the government hadn't been able to determine his condition or his whereabouts.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said the government has not been able to contact Saito's captors and would refrain from making further comments in consideration of his safety.

"Our utmost objective is to ensure (his) safe return," Hosoda told a news conference.

Defense Agency chief Yoshinori Ono said the incident will not affect activities of Self-Defense Force troops now deployed in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah on a humanitarian aid mission.

The militant group posted Saito's passport and photo ID cards -- one of which identified him as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense -- on its Web site. The Foreign Ministry later confirmed that the passport was authentic.

According to the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, Saito was taken Sunday after the militant group ambushed 12 Iraqis and five foreigners who it learned were leaving a U.S. base in western Iraq. It identified the targets as construction workers and intelligence agents.

The militants killed all 17 except for Saito, who was severely injured, according to the Web site.

However, Hart Security told Foreign Ministry officials that some of the workers ran off and survived the ambush, a senior ministry official said, adding that the ministry is asking the security contractor for additional information.

The Foreign Ministry set up a task force headed by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura early Tuesday while Prime Minister's Official Residence set up a liaison office. The government is asking the U.S., Iraq and other nations for help.

There appeared little the government could do other than to wait for the militant group to make the next move, said the senior ministry official who asked not to be named. The group's Web site said it would soon show a video of Saito.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said Saito and his colleagues were transporting cargo for the U.S. forces from Baghdad to its base in al-Asat, some 150 km west of the city.

They were apparently ambushed between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. local time on Sunday after leaving the U.S. base, Takashima said.

Saito, who served in the French Foreign Legion for more than 20 years, entered Iraq in December, Takashima said, adding he did not know when Saito began working for the security company.

Hart Security called the Japanese Consulate in London shortly after midnight Monday Japan time to report Saito was missing, he said.

Takashima said the ministry contacted Saito's father and younger brother in Chiba Prefecture, who said the ID photos appeared to be of Saito.

Ministry sources said Saito has not been in touch with his family for many years and briefly returned to Japan in 1996 to renew his passport for another 10 years. He served in the Ground Self-Defense Forces for two years from 1979, sources say.

The Ansar-al Sunnah Army is believed to be a breakaway faction of Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish-led group with links to al-Qaeda. It has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Iraqi security forces and twin suicide bombings targeting Kurds in Irbil that killed 109 people in 2004.

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