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Eight Koreans, three Japanese reported kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Eight South Koreans and three Japanese were kidnapped Thursday by insurgents in Iraq, and captors armed with automatic rifles and swords threatened to burn the Japanese alive if Tokyo did not withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition.

The Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera, broadcasting to Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, showed portions of a tape from a previously unknown group calling itself the "Mujahedeen Squadrons" showing the three Japanese blindfolded and surrounded by gunmen. It also shows passports for the three.

Associated Press Television News obtained a copy of the full tape, which shows four armed, masked men pointing knives and swords at the captives' chests and throats.

The South Koreans, believed to be Christian ministers who left for Iraq on April 5, were detained by unidentified "armed men" who then released one of the captives, a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul told The Associated Press.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the South Koreans had been kidnapped about 155 miles west of Baghdad but that it was unclear who their captors were.

The videotape, parts of which also were shown on Japan's NHK television, showed two Japanese men and a woman identified as two journalists and an aid worker.

On Al-Jazeera, an announcer read a statement that he said came with the video in which the kidnappers issue a three-day ultimatum for Japan to announce it will withdraw its troops from southern Iraq.

"Three of your sons have fallen into our hands," the Al-Jazeera announcer read. "We offer you two choices: either pull out your forces, or we will burn them alive. We give you three days starting the day this tape is broadcast."

The full video shows the Japanese crouched on the floor of a concrete walled room with an iron door. Four masked men dressed in black stand behind them holding automatic weapons and RPG launchers.

The gunmen make the Japanese lay one-by-one on the floor, and point swords and knives at their chests and throats. The woman's lips can be seen moving as if speaking.

The gunmen then show passports identifying the three as: Noriaki Imai, born 1985; Soichiro Koriyama, 32; Nahoko Takato, 34. They also show a press card for Koriyama from the weekly newspaper Asahi.

Japan has about 530 ground troops based in Samawah, part of a total planned deployment of 1,100 soldiers for a mission in Iraq to purify water and carry out other reconstruction tasks. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been one of the strongest backers of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

About 460 South Korean medics and military engineers have been in Nasiriyah for almost a year. They will come home after South Korea sends the new deployment of up to 3,600 troops to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq later this year.

The kidnappings came amid escalating violence in Iraq. Earlier this week, two South Korean aid workers were briefly detained by Shiite Muslim forces during a gunbattle with Italian peacekeepers. They were released unharmed.