Abducted Japanese journalist returns home the day after release in Afghanistan after 5 months

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese journalist returned home Monday after militants in Afghanistan released him from five months in captivity.

In a series of messages from his Twitter account, freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka said he had thought he would be killed, and that he was not being held by the Taliban, as reported in the Japanese media. His abductors were local militants posing as Taliban to deceive the Japanese government, he wrote.

Tsuneoka's captors apparently decided to release him because he is a Muslim, Japan's Kyodo news agency said. According to his personal website, Tsuneoka converted to the religion in 2000 while in Moscow.

"I'm so relieved," 41-year-old Tsuneoka told a group of reporters shortly after landing in Japan's Kansai International Airport. "I'm sorry for all the trouble."

Shaven and with his hair neatly combed, Tsuneoka seemed refreshed. Then he added: "I want to eat Japanese food."

Tsuneoka was kidnapped in April, when he traveled to a Taliban-controlled area in northern Afghanistan, and was released Saturday night to a Japanese Embassy.

During the first two months of captivity — often at gunpoint by armed men — he said he was sure he would be killed. To keep calm, "I spent each day looking at birds or counting ants on the ground."

His fear reached its peak in late May "when an (unidentified) captive was brought in and killed two days later. I thought I would be next," he said.

Hopes for his release grew over the weekend after two new messages in English suddenly emerged on his Twitter account. He assured his followers that he was alive and in jail in Kunduz. It was not clear how or why the messages were sent.

Tsuneoka had been abducted before. He disappeared in Georgia in 2001 and was held for several months by unidentified individuals, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He was freed during a Georgian military operation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku welcomed his release, thanking the Afghan government and other parties that achieved his safe return. Sengoku denied that the government or his family paid any ransom to win Tsuneoka's release.

Tsuneoka is the latest of more than half a dozen foreign journalists kidnapped in Afghanistan, including two French reporters who were seized last December in Kapisa province just outside Kabul.

On Sunday, the French government said it had received proof in the last 10 days that the France-3 television reporters, Stephane Taponier and Herve Ghesquiere, are alive and in good health. It said negotiations for their release were interrupted during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but were set to resume once it ends in a few days.

"We have good news about their health, they're doing well," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters at a news conference Monday. "In their case, the proof if life is very precious. We are resolutely optimistic in as much as we are doing everything we can so that they come out as soon as possible."