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Iraq: Officials Continue Efforts To Seek Release Of Hostages --> Prague, 10 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from several countries are continuing efforts today to secure the release of their citizens held hostage in Iraq.

Armed groups in recent days have kidnapped a number of foreigners, including three Japanese, a Palestinian, and possibly an American.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi appealed for the Japanese civilians' release in a video message to be distributed to TV broadcasters around the world.

And Japanese Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa arrived in Jordan to coordinate efforts to rescue three kidnapped Japanese civilians, whose abductors have threatened to burn them alive if Japan does not pull its troops out of Iraq by tomorrow.

"Our goal is to rescue the three hostages, if that means going into Iraq to accomplish that goal, nothing is beyond us. And we will act appropriately to accomplish what needs to be done," Aisawa said.

Today, an aide to Iraq's top Shi'ite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the kidnapping of the Japanese.

Ayatollah Muhammad Bager al-Mohri, who is based in Kuwait, demanded the hostages' release, and condemned the kidnapping as a terrorist act.

And a senior Yemeni cleric, Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zendani, also called for their release, saying the three "are not in a position to put pressure on their government to withdraw its troops from Iraq."

Still, domestic pressure has mounted on the Japanese government to comply with the kidnappers' demands.

Hundreds rallied in Tokyo today to demand that Japan pull its 550 troops out of Iraq. The hostage crisis has created a political headache for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and overshadowed the arrival of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Tokyo today.

But Koizumi has vowed not to withdraw his troops, saying Japan can not give in to "despicable threats."

That tough stand got praise today from another staunch U.S. ally, Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

"This [hostage-taking] is a deliberate tactic. It's designed to break the will of nations. It's designed to force nations to rethink their commitment in Iraq and it's doubly important that that tactic not be allowed to succeed. And at the present time, any talk of withdrawal, any talk of weakening of resolve or commitment, will only encourage a repetition and an extension of this kind of behavior," Howard said.

Officials from other countries have also been seeking the release of their citizens held captive in Iraq.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said today that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat personally intervened to seek the release of up to two Palestinians who were abducted and accused of spying for Israel.

Reports said Canadian diplomats are also seeking the release of one of those men, as he holds Canadian citizenship.

Other foreign nationals are thought to have been taken prisoner in recent days.

The British Foreign Office said a British civilian consultant also appeared to have been seized in the southern town of Al-Nasiriyah yesterday.

And Australian television today showed footage of what appeared to be a U.S. civilian held hostage after an attack on a convoy yesterday.