Iraqi gunmen free two hostages |

Iraqi gunmen free two hostages


BAGHDAD, Iraq – Insurgents freed two Japanese hostages unharmed Saturday, a day after gunmen released a video of a kidnapped U.S. soldier and offered to swap him for prisoners detained by Americans.

The latest release leaves 15 foreigners missing or confirmed kidnapped in a spate of abductions that erupted alongside some of the worst violence in the country since the U.S.-led invasion. A Dane and a businessman from the United Arab Emirates were reported seized on Friday.

One hostage, an Italian security guard, was killed earlier this week, the only hostage known to have been slain since the start of the kidnappings.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry announced Saturday that it would set up a committee to deal with the mounting number of abductions.

“Foreign ambassadors are contacting us continuously after each kidnapping event asking about their citizens,” Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud said Saturday. “This gives a bad impression of Iraq which we don’t want to continue.”

Aid worker Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, and freelance journalist, Jumpei Yasuda, 30, were freed at a mosque in Baghdad and taken to the Japanese Embassy, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiro Okuyama.

“It’s great that we’re free,” Watanabe told Japan’s NHK television by telephone. He said that he and Yasuda were not threatened by their captors. All five Japanese taken hostage recently in Iraq have now been freed. Three Japanese kidnapped in Iraq over a week ago were released Thursday.

The hostage crisis was a serious test of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s resolve to resist pressure to end his nation’s military involvement in Iraq. Japan has some 500 troops in southern Iraq.

The wave of abductions began as the U.S. military fought Sunni insurgents in the central city of Fallujah and rebel Shiites in the south. Hostages have been seized in both parts of the country.

The Arabic TV network Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, aired a video Friday night of a clearly frightened U.S. soldier, Pfc. Keith Maupin, surrounded by masked gunmen holding assault rifles.

Maupin, of Batavia, Ohio, and another soldier, Sgt. Elmer C. Krause, 40, of Greensboro, N.C., were listed as missing after their convoy was attacked April 9 outside Baghdad. Both soldiers were assigned to the Army Reserve’s 724th Transportation Company, based at Bartonville, Ill.

Maupin is the second American and first U.S. serviceman known to be kidnapped by insurgents fighting the U.S.-led coalition since the end of war. Thomas Hamill, a 43-year-old truck driver from Mississippi – was also abducted on April 9.

On the tape, the gunman was heard saying: “Some of our groups managed to capture one of the American soldiers, and he is one of many others. He is being treated according to the treatment of prisoners in the Islamic religion and he is in good health.”