Japan PM heads home as at least 14 missing in Algeria

Posted at 01/18/13 5:02 PM

TOKYO - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to cut short his visit to Indonesia and fly home Friday, an official said, as unease grows over the fate of at least 14 citizens caught up in the Algerian hostage crisis.

Japan has been on tenterhooks since news first emerged that some of its nationals had been kidnapped by Islamist gunmen who overran a gas plant in the north African desert.

"(Abe) will cancel part of his plans in Indonesia, including his policy speech and a dinner hosted by President (Susilo Bambang) Yudhoyono," a foreign ministry official told AFP.

"He will be back in Tokyo around dawn on Saturday," he added.

At least 17 Japanese are believed to have been caught up in the unfolding kidnap drama in Algeria, where heavily armed Islamists snatched hundreds of people, purportedly to avenge a French-led offensive in Mali.

Abe earlier upbraided his Algerian counterpart over a rescue effort by the country's military which has reportedly left dozens of hostages dead.

"Prime Minister Abe directly conveyed his strong concern to the Algerian prime minister about this case and asked him to refrain from any action leading to the endangerment of people's lives," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

"We have acted based on the principle of putting top priority on the lives of people. (But) there are some news reports about casualties. In that sense, we consider this Algerian army action to be regrettable."

Abe's criticism of the operation came as Western leaders whose citizens are enmeshed in the drama voiced concern over the way the rescue attempt had been carried out and over the lack of communication from Algiers.

Britain's David Cameron warned of a "very bad situation", with his spokesman saying London had not been informed ahead of the ground and air assault.

"Several people" have been killed or wounded, but a "large number" of hostages have been freed, Algerian Communications Minister Mohamed Said said when special forces took control of a residential compound at the complex.

Algerian officials said soldiers were still surrounding the site's main gas facility, which was yet to be secured at the sprawling gas complex in the east of the country.

Some reports have put the number of dead hostages at 34.

Japanese plant builder JGC has spoken to three of its Japanese staff, but another 14 remain unaccounted for, the company has said.

Of 78 people working for JGC or its affiliates there, 61 were non-Japanese. The safety of one Philippine worker was confirmed Friday, said company spokesman Takeshi Endo.

It was not immediately clear if the four whose safety had been confirmed were hostages or not, but public broadcaster NHK reported they were not together.

"There was a rescue effort by Algeria's military. Perhaps there was (an) intense military action. We can only imagine that our staff were placed in an extremely confusing situation," Endo said.

Abe will head back to Tokyo after a joint press conference with Yudhoyono. He had originally been intending to stay in Indonesia overnight.

He is on the final leg of his first foreign trip since returning to office late last year.

He has also stopped in Vietnam and Thailand on a trip intended to bolster political and economic relations with Southeast Asian nations, at least in part as a counterweight to the rising might of China.

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