TOKYO – Gunmen attacked a car carrying two Japanese journalists in Iraq and the vehicle burst into flames, Japan's Foreign Ministry (search) said Friday. Two bodies were found at the scene, and hospital officials identified them as Japanese.
The bodies have not been positively identified as the missing freelance journalists, Shinsuke Hashida, 61, and his nephew, Kotaro Ogawa, 33, said Yu Kameoka, a spokesman for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
But workers at a hospital in the area told Japanese Embassy (search) officials that the dead were Japanese, Kameoka said.
Earlier, Japanese national broadcaster NHK cited unidentified government officials as saying they feared one of the journalists had died and one was injured, but the government said it was unable to confirm any details.
"We still don't know what happened to them ... so we need to investigate," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters Friday morning.
The attack happened late Thursday about 20 miles south of Baghdad while the journalists were on their way to Baghdad from the southern city of Samawah, where Japan has deployed hundreds of troops, a Japanese Foreign Ministry statement said.
The driver was treated for injuries at a hospital near Baghdad, it said.
The attack follows the kidnapping of five Japanese civilians by armed militants in Iraq in April. Some of the kidnappers threatened to kill their captives unless Japan withdrew its troops. The government refused, and all the hostages were released within a week.
Two Japanese diplomats were killed in November when their unarmed car was ambushed near the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit.
Japan has dispatched more than 500 soldiers to Samawah in southern Iraq and hundreds more naval and air force troops to the surrounding region on a humanitarian mission in support of the U.S.-led coalition.
Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said Friday that the incident would not affect Japan's troop deployment.
"We have not judged, at this time, that this incident will have an impact on the activities of the Self-Defense Forces," Ishiba said at a news conference.
Echoing criticism by officials and media last month that the five kidnapped civilians behaved recklessly in going to Iraq, a senior ruling party lawmaker said journalists should take responsibility for their own well-being.
"We ask everyone — including journalists — to think about their own safety and personal responsibility," lawmaker Jiro Kawasaki said. "We've repeatedly asked people to leave Iraq because of the situation there. We again ask that media representatives leave the country."