Japanese missing in Iraq is ex-French Legionnaire

13th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 13 (AFP) - Akihiko Saito, the Japanese security agent missing in Iraq and possibly kidnapped, was for more than 20 years one of just a few dozen Japanese nationals in France's storied 7,500-strong Foreign Legion.

PARIS, May 13 (AFP) - Akihiko Saito, the Japanese security agent missing in Iraq and possibly kidnapped, was for more than 20 years one of just a few dozen Japanese nationals in France's storied 7,500-strong Foreign Legion.  

"Things are rather clear for the Japanese, as it was for Saito. They join to be Legionnaires, not for economic or political reasons," said the Legion's spokesman, Major Christian Rascle.  

"He was extremely nice, someone who you could really trust," Saito's countryman and fellow Legionnaire Michio Hoshimizu told reporters in the south-eastern French town of Orange.  

"He's a strong guy, physically and mentally," Hoshimizu said of Saito, a 44-year-old Tokyo native working for a British security firm who was believed to have been abducted Sunday after an ambush in western Iraq.  

Ansar al-Sunna, a group with links to Al-Qaeda, said it had kidnapped Saito but Japan said Thursday it was still unsure of his true fate. Saito's employer, Hart Security, said he might have been killed.  

Hoshimizu, a 32-year-old staff sergeant, was apparently the only one of about 40 Japanese nationals currently in the French Foreign Legion who knew Saito, who left the elite unit in January after 21 years of service.  

The Legion, created in 1831 by King Louis Philippe, is composed entirely of volunteers between the ages of 18 and 40, of any nationality - and with or without proper means of identification. Many join to escape their pasts.  

Once a Legionnaire has joined the unit, which is part of the French army, he can take on an assumed name if he wishes, and thus enjoys total anonymity until he decides to reveal his true identity.  

According to the Foreign Legion's website, members hail from some 140 countries, but less than seven percent come from the Far East.  

Rascle, who knew Saito, said he was a "true Legionnaire: very straightforward, very disciplined, devoted body and soul to the Legion".  

"He didn't want to get married while he was a Legionnaire because he thought you couldn't do both things at once. He was a good guy," the commander noted.  

Rascle said the Asian Legionnaires - many of whom serve as parachutists because of their relatively small size - were "good little soldiers, very devoted, nice, very disciplined and always smiling.  

Hoshimizu said he first met Saito in 1991, when he started his own training, and then again in 2002.  

"He was well-liked by everyone," Hoshimizu said. "Everyone always said, 'What a great guy'."  

"With 20 years of experience in the Legion behind him, that could help him to overcome what he's going through right now," Hoshimizu added.  

According to Japanese news reports, Saito is single and has a house in the southern French port of Marseille.  

Although he was also a veteran of his national army, Saito has no known links with some 600 Japanese forces carrying out a reconstruction mission in southern Iraq.  

"The Legion has neither the impulse nor the means to keep in touch with former members. That's the reason why it doesn't have any information about Akihiko Saito's presence in Iraq," the French defence ministry said.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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