TOKYO -- The abduction of three Japanese in Iraq plunged Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi into his deepest crisis since taking office three years ago, as relatives of the hostages and thousands of protesters pressed the government yesterday to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq.
Ruling party officials vowed not to give in to terrorists and reiterated that Japanese soldiers would continue their humanitarian mission in Iraq. Koizumi denounced as "cowardly" the Iraqi captors' threat to burn the three civilian hostages alive unless Tokyo gives in.
Thousands massed near the prime minister's official residence and held a candlelight vigil for captive aid workers Noriaki Imai, 18, and Nahoko Takato, 34; and photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32.
"As a parent, it would be just unbearable to see my child being burned alive, if that really happens," Koriyama's mother, Kimiko, said at a news conference.
The Arab TV network Al-Jazeera said a video of the hostages was accompanied by a statement saying they would be burned alive if Japan's troops were not pulled from Iraq within three days. Koizumi pushed forward with the deployment of 1,100 troops to Iraq this year despite deep public reservations about sending Japanese soldiers to a combat zone for the first time since World War II.
Nearly 2,000 people turned out for the candlelight vigil in the heart of Tokyo's political district, shouting "Defense troops, withdraw right now!" Opposition leaders said they want to help Koizumi bring the captives home safely, but would hold him liable for the outcome.
"We foresaw trouble like this when the government decided to send troops to Iraq," said Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party.
Koizumi called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet and created a task force to formulate a response to the kidnappings. Vice President Dick Cheney visits this weekend, and the prime minister is expected to make a strong request for help. To protect against further kidnappings, the government is preparing for the possible evacuation of some 70 Japanese civilians believed to be in Iraq, Kyodo News agency reported.
Twenty-one Japanese journalists and their support staff have sought refuge in the Japanese military compound in southern Iraq.
"We cannot give in to the cowardly threats of terrorists," Koizumi said. But he added: "We don't know who this group is. Right now what we need to do is gather accurate information and bring them [the hostages] home safely."
The government has had no contact with the hostage-takers. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda stressed that going along with the withdrawal demand was not under consideration.
Many Japanese voiced support for Koizumi.
"Japan should not give in to this kind of terrorism," said Koichi Yoshida, a 43-year-old executive in Tokyo.