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Japanese Rancor Endures With Denial of Red Army Extraditions

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page A13

TOKYO, March 1—The old police officers gathered again last Sunday, as they have once each year for 27 years, to drink away the bitter memories and chew over schemes to catch their nemesis.

They relived, for the night, the dramatic nine-day siege at a resort inn seized by the radical Japanese Red Army group in 1972. There was a moment of silence for two colleagues killed in the standoff. A civilian also died. And they grumbled again that their own government gave in to a hostage threat and released the ringleader of the siege, Kunio Bando, who was flown to Libya and disappeared.

"We police officers of the 1970s have a grudge against our government," said Atsuyuki Sassa, one of the group--now dwindled to 13-- that meets in a fifth-floor room of a steakhouse near a fish market. "The government had no courage."

Their fanciful plots have yet to flush Bando from hiding, and the police officers faced disappointment again today. The government of Lebanon rejected Tokyo's request that five former Japanese Red Army members be returned to face justice.

The five, including one involved in a massacre at an airport in Tel Aviv in 1972 and another who was freed from prison with Bando, are to be released in Beirut Tuesday after serving three years for passport forgery.

Japan pressed Lebanon to extradite the five to stand trial on a variety of charges. But demonstrators in Beirut demanded their government reject the request and guarantee the safety of the aging radicals who so violently embraced the Arab cause three decades ago.

Japan has no formal extradition agreement with Lebanon. Although Lebanon would like to restore business links with Tokyo, they now have minimal economic ties, reflecting domestic Lebanese support for the Japanese group's attacks against Israel.

So it was "unthinkable" that Lebanon would risk the disapproval of other Arab countries by returning the radicals to Japan, said Kaoru Murakami, a security analyst in Tokyo. "These were warriors who fought against Israel. Lebanon may risk loss of some kind of cooperation from Japan by not handing them over, but they would suffer a tremendous loss with other Middle East countries if they did."

The effort by the five Japanese to remain in Lebanon took on theatrical proportions recently as three converted to Islam and a fourth married a Lebanese sympathizer and joined the Greek Orthodox Church, to which his wife belongs. But the Lebanese cabinet today decided to deport the five to an unnamed country, rejecting both their request to stay and Tokyo's extradition bid.

Japan's request risked bringing back the passions of a time when the Japanese Red Army was one of the world's most feared terrorist organizations. The small group of leftist, ex-university students was responsible for a fearsome string of bombings, hijackings, murders and kidnappings around the globe. Its last "action" was in 1988.

Most experts think the group's violent days are over. "They are no longer important, just an old romantic story," said one Lebanese. But not all are so sure. "If they were to come back for trial, my one fear is that I no longer carry a gun to protect myself," said Sassa, who retired in 1989 as a top Japanese police and intelligence officer.

The Japanese Red Army splashed onto the front pages in Japan in 1972 after a bloody internal dispute. Fleeing to the mountains, Bando and four others took over a resort inn and held its caretaker hostage.

More than 1,500 policemen laid siege to the inn. Two officers and a civilian were shot to death before police demolished part of the house, rescued the hostage and imprisoned Bando.

Just three months later, three other Red Army members stormed into Israel's Lod Airport near Tel Aviv, spraying the crowded terminal with automatic weapons and grenades. Twenty-eight people died in the attack, including two of the terrorists who killed themselves to avoid arrest. Kozo Okamoto, 24, was arrested and given a life sentence in Israel.

But neither Okamoto nor Bando were in prison to stay. In 1975, five Japanese Red Army guerrillas seized the U.S. Consulate and the Swedish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In return for the hostages, the radicals forced Japan to fly Bando and four companions on a Japan Air Lines plane to Libya. In May 1985, Israel released Okamoto in a complicated swap of Israeli soldiers, Palestinian guerrillas and Red Army members.

The group's abrupt silence since 1988 has puzzled intelligence officials, who have come to conclude that the group's threat--and its protectors--have diminished. As Lebanese authorities slowly re-exerted control after a long civil war, the government has moved to curb some of its troublesome residents. It sentenced Okamoto and four others--including Haruo Wako, suspected in two embassy takeovers--to three years in prison on passport forgery charges. That sentence is about to expire.

The Lebanese government would like to find another country to send them, but is not expected to force them back into the hands of the Japanese.

"They are getting old. They are too radical, too ridiculous to inspire a following now," Sassa acknowledged. "But I would be glad to see them come back here, where they must be punished."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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