CAIRO, Egypt – Two Japanese hostages in Iraq were released Saturday to the same group of Islamic clerics who negotiated the freedom of three other Japanese hostages earlier this week.
The two civilians were handed over to the clerics at a Baghdad mosque, Jiro Okuyama (search), a spokesman for Japan's Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press. They were then taken to the Japanese Embassy.
Aid worker Nobutaka Watanabe, 36, and freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda, 30, were apparently kidnapped Wednesday. Japan had never officially confirmed that the two were taken hostage.
Watanabe told Japanese public broadcaster NHK they were treated well and that their kidnappers told them they were released to avoid hurting Iraq's relations with Japan. They were also told to tell the Japanese government to withdraw its military from Iraq, NHK said.
Tokyo has a contingent of about 500 troops helping with reconstruction in southern Iraq.
NHK showed Yasuda and Watanabe, both bearded, speaking in the mosque.
"We had a good meal everyday," Yasuda said. "We were blindfolded and changed place."
Watanabe said they were not threatened.
NHK said the Islamic Clerics Committee (search) had negotiated the release. The Sunni Muslim group also arranged the release of three other Japanese freed on Thursday.
That group — two aid workers and a journalist — underwent medical checks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Saturday and were expected to return home within 24 hours.
The captors initially threatened to kill them unless Japan withdrew its troops from Iraq, but freed the three after an appeal by Sunni clerics.
As Japanese TV stations aired the news of the latest releases, the families of the two reacted with a mix of joy and disbelief.
"There's no greater happiness than this. I'm speechless," Hideaki Yasuda, Jumpei's father, outside his home in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo.
Watanabe's father, Kunio, said he wasn't sure whether to believe the initial reports.
"The moment I heard the news, I thought 'Is this a dream? Is this true?' I had complex feelings about it," he told reporters at his home in Tochigi prefecture, northeast of the capital.