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Japan presses Algeria for answers as toll hits nine

A plane carrying Japanese government figures prepares to leave Tokyo on its way to Algeria on January 22, 2013
A plane carrying Japanese government representatives prepares to leave Tokyo International Airport on its way to Algeria to bring home Japanese survivors and the bodies of seven Japanese victims of the recent hostage crisis in Algeria on January 22, 2013.

A senior Japanese official met Algeria's prime minister on Wednesday to press for an explanation of the gas plant siege, as Tokyo confirmed the deaths of two more nationals, taking its toll to nine.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Shunichi Suzuki arrived aboard a government jet that is to repatriate the bodies of those known to have been killed in the hostage crisis, along with the seven Japanese who survived.

Tokyo announced late Wednesday that it knew for sure that nine Japanese were killed after Islamist gunmen overran the desert facility. One Japanese citizen remains unaccounted for.

"Unfortunately, we have been able to confirm two more deaths," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. "The Japanese government expresses sincere condolences to the families and people concerned."

"The use of violence cannot be tolerated for any reason. We firmly condemn acts of terror," he said adding the government would do its utmost to confirm the fate of the final missing person.

Seventeen Japanese were at the facility in In Amenas when jihadists struck on January 16 at the start of a four-day siege that left dozens of foreigners dead. Seven of them made it to safety.

Suzuki carried a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Suga told reporters in Tokyo earlier.

As well as Prime Minister Abdelmalek Saleki, Suzuki also met Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, Japan's Kyodo News reported, citing Tokyo's foreign ministry.

Japan has asked Algeria to fully investigate events at the gas plant and exactly how individuals died, Suga said in Tokyo.

"Algeria has promised to cooperate as much as possible," he said.

Screen grab from footage broadcast by Algeria's Canal Algerie on January 20, 2013 shows the Tiguentourine gas plant
A screen grab from footage broadcast by Algeria's Canal Algerie on January 20, 2013 shows the Tiguentourine gas plant in Algeria.

Algeria has said 37 foreigners of eight different nationalities and an Algerian were killed in the siege, which ended on Saturday.

Several people are still missing and the bodies of others are so badly charred that they have not been identified.

Wednesday's visit came as it emerged that Britain, Japan, the United States and other countries whose nationals were caught up in the events at the desert plant issued a joint demarche to Algeria last Friday.

A demarche is a formal diplomatic move in which a country's stance is conveyed in person -- rather than by note -- to another government.

In a conference call, Vice Foreign Minister Minoru Kiuchi told foreign minister Medelci that Tokyo wanted Algiers to do all it could to protect captives.

"Japan is strongly concerned about acts that put the lives of the hostages at risk, and it is regrettable that the Algerian government pressed military rescue operations," he said, according to the foreign ministry.

Japan was among the more forthright of nations as the hostage crisis unfolded, summoning Algiers's ambassador to demand answers and to push for military restraint as armed forces surrounded the plant.

The Japanese plane's arrival in Algiers came as Tokyo announced it was shutting its embassy in neighbouring Mali, evacuating staff and urging its nationals there to leave because of the deteriorating security situation.

According to Kyodo news, Suga said the plane's return home will probably be delayed beyond Thursday as it will now transport the two additional bodies and because it was struck by lightning on arrival.

On Wednesday, Kyodo published the first pictures to emerge from the incident, showing gun-toting kidnappers in camouflage, with their faces covered, guarding hostages at the desert site.

The kidnappers claimed they launched their attack in protest at Algeria's complicity in a French military campaign against Islamists in Mali.

An Algerian newspaper reported on Wednesday that the arms used by the militants came from Libyan rebels who last year overthrew Moamer Kadhafi.

The Japanese death toll in Algeria -- the highest in a terror attack since Al-Qaeda crashed airliners into New York's Twin Towers and 24 Japanese died -- has shaken a country not accustomed to its citizens being targeted abroad.

There has been blanket media coverage of events half a world away and anguished demands for more to be done to protect Japanese working in troublespots, including beefing up spy networks.

Kyodo on Wednesday said Suga indicated Tokyo's willingness to consider increasing the number of defence attaches at Japanese embassies to strengthen the country's ability to gather information.

"I am aware of the need. We need to think about the most effective (crisis-response) measures," Suga said.

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