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Japan works on hostage release

Demonstrators in Tokyo call on the government to save three hostages held in Iraq.

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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- As protesters demand the recall of Japanese troops from Iraq, Japan has set up an emergency headquarters in Jordan to work on the release of three of its citizens taken hostage in Iraq.

A group of kidnappers calling themselves the Mujahideen Brigades have said they will burn their civilian captives alive on Sunday unless Japan pulls its troops out of Iraq.

Japan has rejected the kidnappers' demand, saying it would be "playing into the hands of the terrorists" to withdraw.

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

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Ichiro Aisawa, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's special envoy, arrived early Saturday in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Aisawa told reporters: "Our goal is to rescue the hostages", adding that "nothing is beyond us".

Hundreds of people staged a candlelight vigil outside the prime minister's office in Tokyo Friday night and demonstrators followed up with more protests Saturday calling for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is due in Tokyo Saturday for talks with Koizumi.

Japanese reacted in shock and anger at the videotape showing the 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.

Koizumi defended the government's position, when a reporter asked the Japanese leader if "push comes to shove, you wouldn't withdraw?" "We must ensure and do all it takes so it doesn't come to that," Koizumi said.

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

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima told CNN that the troops were in Iraq to help the Iraqi people reconstruct their country.

The sending of troops has stirred up controversy in Japan with many critics arguing that the dispatch violates the nation's pacifist constitution.

Opinion polls showed most Japanese were against the Iraq war and also opposed to the deployment of troops.

Despite the public's initial opposition, Takashima said most people now support the Self-Defense Forces in Iraq.

"With the television showing the people of Iraq welcoming the Self-Defense Forces, it has become very popular," Takashima said.

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 three hostages -- Noriaki Imai, 18, freelance journalist Soichiro Koriyama, 32, and aid worker Nahoko Takato, 34 -- apparently were taken captive while they were traveling overland from Amman to Baghdad.

CNN Correspondent Atika Shubert contributed to this report

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