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Japanese Hostage Reported Dead in Iraq

Prague, 28 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Japan says it is trying to confirm if a body shown in a video by a militant group in Iraq is that of a Japanese hostage in Iraq. The undated video, posted on the internet, appears to show the body of Akihiko Saito, who had been missing since an ambush three weeks ago. The news comes amid fresh violence in northern Iraq.

The video shows now-familiar gruesome images.

First, identification papers showing the picture and name of hostage Akihiko Saito. Then, the body of a man, blood covering his face, as a voice declares, "God is great."

Saito, a former soldier, was working in Iraq for the British security firm Hart. He was among a group of five foreign workers -- four of them confirmed dead -- who were ambushed west of Baghdad on May 8.

The militant Ansar Al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for Saito's kidnapping -- and, it now says, his killing.

Japan says it's trying to confirm the validity of the claim. Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said, "We showed that website to his family and the people of Hart Securities, and we are currently checking whether it is truly Mr. Saito or not."

But Saito's younger brother, Hironobu, says he's almost certain the pictures are of his brother.

"I think we had gradually been preparing ourselves for this day, so I can say that we are dealing pretty calmly with this matter," he said.

Laith Kubba, the spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, spoke to RFE/RL's Iraqi Service in Baghdad.

"In the event of this being true, despite the fact that there is no corpse so far, the Iraqi government expresses its deep regret and total condemnation of this terrorist act," Kubba said. "Those who are perpetrating such acts are committing similar crimes against Iraqis as well, both civilians and others."

Kubba added the Iraqi government appreciates Japan's efforts in the country and expressed hope the incident would not hurt bilateral ties between Tokyo and Baghdad.

The news comes amid fresh reports of violence elsewhere in Iraq.

Suicide attackers detonated two car bombs at a northern military base, killing at least five members of Iraq's security forces and wounding at least 40 others.

The bombs went off within minutes of each other as soldiers and workers showed up for work at the base in Sinjar, 120 kilometers northwest of Mosul.

And in Kirkuk, police say a moderate Arab Sunni tribal leader was shot and killed late yesterday outside his home.

Naif Sabhan al-Jibouri was described as a peacemaker, who had built good relations with the city's Kurds.

(RFE/RL Iraqi Service, agencies)

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