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Monday, October 25, 1999 Published at 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Japanese hostages released in Kyrgyzstan

Four Japanese geologists held hostage in Kyrgyzstan for more than two months by Islamic miltants have been released.

They arrived with their Kyrgyz interpreter at a military airbase near the capital Bishkek, the last of 13 hostages to be freed.

The Japanese, who were prospecting for gold in mountains near the border with Tajikistan, were part of a group taken hostage on 21 August.

BBC Central Asian correspondent Louise Hidalgo: The hostage crisis plunged this frontier region into turmoil
The four are employees of Japan's Mineral Mining Agency, who were working under a Japanese economic aid programme.

They were reported to be happy and in good health.

Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi thanked the Kyrgyz Government for the release.

"I'm very relieved the hostages came back in good health," Mr Obuchi said.

"I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the Kyrgyz president for the leadership and efforts that led to this outcome."

Flour and money

After weeks of official and behind-the-scenes negotiations, the geologists were freed early on Monday morning.

A Kyrgyz security official said the hostages had been exchanged for a few tonnes of flour and a sum of money.

He refused to give any more details, but the Kyrgyz press had reported a ransom demand of $5m.

However, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said his country had not paid a ransom for the hostages' release and that to his knowledge neither had the Kyrgyz government.

False reports

There had been several false reports of their release over the past weeks.

The hostages - Nobuhisa Nakajima, 49, Hirotaro Fujii, 47, Haruo Harada, 38 and Toshiaki Ariie, 58 - were finally freed in eastern Tajikistan, an Islamist-controlled region on the border with Kyrgyzstan.

Their family members in Japan sounded ecstatic when they heard the good news.

"Thank you very much. Thank you very much for the safe release," said Kunie Ariie, mother of one of the hostages, repeatedly bowing.

Japanese television showed the men walking into the airfield bearded and wearing battle fatigues.

Once handed over by their captors, the hostages were flown by helicopter to Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan before being transferred to a military plane for the flight to the capital.

After being debriefed, the geologists will return to Tokyo.

"Holy war"

The men were abducted in mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan when hundreds of Muslim fighters streamed across the border from Tajikistan to carry out a "holy war" against neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Despite repeated attempts, the ill-prepared Kyrgyz army had been unable to drive out the hundreds of gunmen who are well-equipped with radio communications, night binoculars and weapons in the remote mountainous region.

Seven of the other 13 hostages were freed in the past two weeks, while one other was reportedly killed while trying to escape.

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