TOKYO – Japan waited anxiously on Monday for the release of three Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq as the government struggled to determine whether the gunmen holding them planned to set them free.
In the United States, relatives of Thomas Hamill (search), a U.S. civilian held by militants in Iraq, said they were praying for his safe return.
At least one hostage was released on Sunday and more were expected to be freed. Britain's Foreign Office said Gary Teeley (search), a British man who had reportedly been kidnapped in the southern city of Nasiriyah (search), was safe and in the hands of coalition forces.
Al-Jazeera (search) reported Sunday that kidnappers said they would release eight other foreign hostages — two Turks, three Pakistanis, a Nepalese, a Filipino and an Indian. Their captors claimed the men were truck drivers for the U.S.-led coalition.
In a video of the eight hostages, a spokesman for the kidnappers said they were being released. But it was unclear if the men were actually freed.
Japanese officials in Jordan said they were talking with unidentified people in Iraq to gain the Japanese hostages' release. A negotiator told the Japanese government the three civilians were unharmed, held near Fallujah, Kyodo News reported, citing unidentified government sources.
The American, Hamill, 43, was snatched Friday by gunmen who attacked a fuel convoy he was guarding. His captors threatened to kill him unless U.S. troops ended their assault on the city of Fallujah. The deadline passed Sunday morning with no word on Hamill's fate.
Hamill, a Mississippi native, works for the Houston-based engineering and construction company Kellogg, Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton, his wife, Kellie, told The Associated Press.
Gunmen abducted Japanese aid workers Nahoko Takato and Naoki Imai and photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama last week, then sent video footage of masked men threatening the trio with guns and knives to the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera and APTN.
The hostage-takers also sent a statement to Al-Jazeera on Thursday saying Tokyo had three days to meet their demand of withdrawing its soldiers from Iraq or they would burn the three to death.
Amid reports of intervention by Islamic clerics, however, Japanese authorities in Tokyo said Sunday they had received information the group would be freed.
The families of the abducted again appealed for help.
"We don't have any more time — I apologize for repeating this, but we really don't have any more time," said Shuichi Takato, the brother of Nahoko Takato. "We have no power. Please help us."
Japanese officials in Jordan, where Tokyo set up a hostage crisis task force, said negotiations were ongoing for their release.
Director of the emergency team, Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa, said his embassy was "in contact with somebody." He declined to provide more information, saying "it is a very sensitive time."
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived in Tokyo Saturday for previously scheduled talks with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other top officials, was monitoring the situation, his spokesman said.
The vice president was due to meet Koizumi Monday and urge him to stand firm in his commitment to Iraqi reconstruction.
The hostage crisis was a blunt challenge to Koizumi's commitment to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. He was a strong supporter of the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and pledged about 1,000 Japanese military personnel on a noncombat mission to help with reconstruction despite deep reservations in a nation with a pacifist tradition.
About 1,000 peace activists and other demonstrators gathered outside the prime minister's residence for a third day, chanting and waving signs demanding that Japanese troops be pulled out to ensure the hostages' release. A weekend poll suggested public opinion was split on the issue.
Koizumi said he would not bow to the demands of terrorists, even though the families pleaded with the government to consider even a temporary withdrawal.
The first sign the crisis could be nearing an end came from the Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera, which reported early Sunday it had received a statement from the kidnappers saying they had decided to free their hostages within 24 hours following mediation by a Sunni Muslim organization, the Islamic Clerics Committee.
In the statement, the kidnappers said they had acted after confirming the three were not "collaborating" with occupation forces, and derided the Japanese government as "insolent" and unrepresentative of the Japanese people, media reports said.