TOKYO – Vice President Dick Cheney (search) brought a message of solidarity Saturday to a nation torn over its commitment of humanitarian forces in Iraq. The abduction of three Japanese hostages by Iraqi militants cast a long shadow over the start of Cheney's weeklong trip to Asia.
Hundreds of anti-war demonstrators urged their government to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq to save the lives of the three civilians. The captors had threatened to kill the Japanese unless Tokyo withdrew its troops from Iraq by Sunday — a demand Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) has refused.
Later Saturday, the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera reported the kidnappers said they would release the hostages within 24 hours. The kidnappers, identifying themselves as the "Muhahedeen Squadron," said they made the decision after mediation by the Islamic Clerics Committee (search), an Iraqi Sunni Muslim organization, Al-Jazeera reported.
The kidnappers, in a statement to Al-Jazeera, also urged the Japanese public to press their government to pull out of Iraq.
Cheney planned to attend services with his wife, Lynne, at a nondenominational Protestant church on Easter Sunday. His schedule included meetings Monday with Koizumi and other government officials.
China and South Korea are later stops on his trip.
Koizumi has sent a special envoy to Jordan to coordinate Japan's response to the hostage crisis, but Tokyo knows little about the group that abducted the Japanese. The prime minister was expected to make a strong request to Cheney for help.
Sentiment runs strong in Japan against the country's first participation in a combat zone since World War II.
Cheney had been expected to urge Koizumi to press ahead with plans to send up to 1,100 troops to Iraq this year, but the hostage-taking could change the dynamics of the meeting, U.S. aides said.
Japan has about 530 ground troops in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah. They are part of a total planned deployment of 1,100 soldiers for a mission to purify water and carry out other reconstruction tasks.
Koizumi's decision to stand with the Bush administration on Iraq created his deepest crisis since he took office three years ago.
He has denounced the kidnappers' threats as "cowardly" and his government has said it will not give in to their demands.
But relatives of the hostages and thousands of protesters pressed the government to withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq.
In remarks clearly aimed at Japan and South Korea — two Asian allies with troops in Iraq — Cheney on Friday said coalition forces must not bow to terrorists.
"Our will is being tested in Iraq, as we have seen in the heavy fighting this week. Yet as Americans, we understand what is at stake," Cheney told troops at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, where he stooped briefly en route to Tokyo.
"Our own security and that of our friends in the region is directly dependent on our success," Cheney said.
"In Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, the war on terror requires tremendous coordination with allies around the world," Cheney added.
In Japan, the vice president also was hoping to make progress on persuading the government to once again start importing U.S. beef. Imports were halted with last December's report of a case of mad cow disease in a Holstein in Washington state.
But U.S. officials said they did not expect more than minor concessions from Japan, possibly to be announced during Cheney's visit.
Japan has said it will only renew imports of U.S. beef under a 100 percent testing program, a level of testing the United States has rejected.