The insurgents, calling themselves the Saraya al-Mujahedin (Mujahedin Brigades), released a videotape yesterday to the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera showing the hostages.
On the videotape, four masked men point knives and swords at the captives, who are lying on the floor of a room with concrete walls. A written statement by the captors that accompanied the video advises the Japanese government that "three of your sons have fallen into our hands." It continues: "We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces or we will burn them alive. We give you three days starting the day this tape is broadcast."
The kidnapping of the Japanese and release of the videotape is the first time militants have used hostage taking to deliver a political ultimatum in the ongoing Iraq crisis.
The videotape also provides close-up pictures of the captives’ passports. The documents identify the hostages as two aide workers and a journalist. One is female. It is not clear where the civilians were seized but it is widely assumed they were taken in southern Iraq where armed militias loyal to radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are fighting with coalition troops.
The Japanese government has yet to formally confirm the hostage taking. Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yasuo Fukuda, gave the official response in Tokyo yesterday.
"If the reports are true and these [Japanese] civilians have been kidnapped, it is extremely regrettable, we feel a strong sense of anger, and we demand their immediate release. And, as the Japanese government, we will try to provide for their immediate release as well as ensure the safety and protection of all Japanese citizens residing in Iraq," Fukuda said.
The reported hostage taking is already sparking a major political crisis for the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The government's decision earlier this year to deploy what ultimately will be a contingent of 1,100 soldiers was highly controversial in Japan, where pacifist sentiment is strong. The deployment was approved by parliament only after much debate and under strict conditions.
Those conditions are that the mission be limited to strictly humanitarian activities, including improving water purification facilities and completing other economic reconstruction tasks. The Japanese contingent -- which is heavily armed for self-defense only -- is based near the southern city of Samawa.
The Japanese government now faces some tough choices. Should it pull out its forces -- which were deployed in a gesture of political solidarity with its close ally the United States -- to save the hostages' lives? Should it negotiate with the hostages for other conditions? Or does it refuse to negotiate at all in order to avoid yielding to extortion?
The first rounds of what looks likely to be an agonizing three days of debate in Japan began with the government taking a hard line toward what it called "terrorist" demands.
Speaking today at a news conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda rejected any suggestions that Tokyo would "give in" to the kidnappers.
"Are you saying we should give in to them at the first threat they present to us? That's playing into the hands of the terrorists. That is what the terrorists are waiting for us to do. Are you saying we should give in to them?" Fukuda said.
His remarks came as some demonstrators gathered in front of the Japanese parliament today to demand the government accept the hostage takers' terms to save the captives’ lives.
Emotions around the hostage taking have been raised by the distraught-looking appearance of the captives in the videotape.
In one of the most emotionally charged moments in the tape, a militant holds a knife to the throat of one of the bound captives, whose eyes widen in panic as he struggles to get free. The woman captive weeps and screams.
At the same time, the captors demand that the three civilians denounce the Japanese troops’ presence in Iraq. In response, the clearly terrorized captives scream "No, Koizumi."
The capture of the three Japanese civilians comes as militants in several places in southern and central Iraq have seized foreigners in the past days. The captured and still missing include two Arab residents of east Jerusalem -- one an Israeli citizen working for a U.S. aid group -- and a British contractor.
Seven South Korean Christian missionaries who were detained yesterday were released after they convinced their captors that they were engaged in purely humanitarian work.