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Death threat to Iraq hostages

Al-Jazeera showed video footage of the Japanese hostages.

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(CNN) -- Three Japanese citizens are among a number of civilians taken hostage in Iraq, where fighting between insurgents and coalition troops has escalated in recent days.

A previously unknown group calling itself the Mujahedeen Squadrons has issued a statement saying the three would be burned alive unless Japan pulled its troops from Iraq.

Harrowing video shows three Japanese nationals held hostage at gunpoint and threatened with knives.

The video was delivered to the Arab television network Al-Jazeera with a written demand: Withdraw Japanese troops from Iraq within three days, or the hostages will be burned alive.

The three Japanese were among 12 foreign nationals kidnapped Thursday in various incidents within Iraq, a seemingly new tactic by insurgents to try to drive a wedge in the U.S.-led coalition.

Seven South Koreans who had been kidnapped earlier in the day were freed several hours later, leaving the three Japanese and two Jerusalem Arabs as the remaining captives.

The British government also is hunting down a citizen who has been missing since Monday.

The Japanese government's reaction was swift, demanding the release of their citizens and denouncing the hostage-taking as unforgivable.

Japan also said its troops would remain in Iraq.

Japan has more than 500 troops on the ground, part of 1,000-strong contingent heading to Iraq for humanitarian missions.

"Troops are there to provide humanitarian support. There is no reason the Self Defense Forces should withdraw from Iraq," said Cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

"We will do our utmost for those people to be released unharmed."

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi insisted that sending troops was not only necessary, but a moral imperative to support the U.S. occupation there.

Video of the three Japanese hostages shows them being manhandled, humiliated and threatened with guns and knives -- at times, the knives pressed to their throats.

The names of the three -- seen on passports in news footage -- are Koriyama Soichiro, who has a press card issued in Jordan for Weekly Asahi; Imai Noriaki; and Takato Nahoko, a woman.

Meanwhile, Iranian TV showed footage of two Arab residents of Jerusalem kidnapped in Iraq and a masked man who said he is representing the abductors, a group called Ansar al-Din. The masked man said the two captives are "prisoners from the occupation forces."

Fukuda is demanding the immediate release of the Japanese hostages.

"We have these two Zionist collaborators. We are demanding the release of our sheikhs, Sunnis or Shiites, prisoners, especially the women prisoners. We are willing to negotiate over the fate of the two," the masked man said on the video.

Israeli Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra said the government will try to free the two hostages.

"It is our obligation to free them from the clutches of evil, evil that has no boundaries," Ezra told Israeli TV.

"We all know they are not Mossad agents or sent by the Mossad in any way," he added, referring to Israel's renowned spy agency.

In the footage aired on Iranian TV, the two said their names and ages -- Nabil George Razzouk, 30, and Ahmed Yassin Tikati, 33. They said they were international aid workers.

Razzouk's uncle, Samir, told Israeli TV that his nephew has been in Iraq for two months, working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a position he got "through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv."

On Iranian TV, Razzouk said he works for RTI, a North Carolina-based company that USAID awarded a contract to "provide local governance support in post-war Iraq."

Records show Nabil Razzouk studied at Augusta College in the U.S. state of Georgia and graduated from there in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in business marketing.

He has a Georgia driver's license and his name was registered at addresses in Augusta, in eastern Georgia, and Marietta and Kennesaw in northern Georgia last decade.

The U.S. driver's license was among identifying documents aired on Iranian television along with footage of the two men.

Haaretz, the Israeli daily, said the Iranian report also showed "two identity cards, a Maccabi HMO card, an Israeli driver's license and a supermarket chain discount card." The paper is reporting that both men are Christians.

Another uncle, Anton Razzouk, appeared on Israeli TV and appealed to the kidnappers to let the two go and distanced his nephew's relationship with Israel, despised by insurgents.

He said Nabil volunteered to work for a U.S. company that helped the Palestinians and "has no relation to politics or spying of any sort. We are asking this group to release him without conditions because his cause was noble, just like his name, which actually means noble."

The seven South Koreans -- all of them missionaries -- were taken captive at a checkpoint by armed militants. Another South Korean who was with the group escaped at the time of the abduction and reported the incident to the Korean ambassador to Iraq, the foreign ministry said.

CNN'S Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae interviewed Christian missionary Hong Kwang-chun, who said they were stopped at a checkpoint 90 minutes from Baghdad by Shiite Muslim militants.

The missionary said they identified themselves as Koreans and explained to the militants they were there to help the Iraqi people and not fight against them.

Hong said the militants eventually escorted the missionaries back to Baghdad and let them go. They were held for about seven hours, Hong said. South Korean officials are debriefing the missionaries in Baghdad.

In Washington, a State Department official said the department is pleased about the release of the South Korean hostages, "but we remain seriously concerned about the Japanese civilians who continue to be held."

"We are following the situation closely and continue to be in touch with the government of Japan and the CPA," the State Department official said.

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