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May 6, 2003

Lebanonwire

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Japanese Red Army member Kozo Okamoto wants to return to Japan

Kozo Okamoto, one of three Japanese Red Army members who staged a 1972 machine-gun and hand-grenade attack at Tel Aviv's airport, said in a series of recent interviews with Kyodo News that he now wants to return home from Beirut, where he has been granted political asylum, Kyodo news reported.

Okamoto, 55, said in the interviews from March 21-23 in Beirut totaling about four hours, "I want to return to Japan as soon as possible...I want to know how my old friends are doing there and want to return to college again to study biology."

Tokyo continues to seek Okamoto's extradition to put him on trial in Japan.

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Japanese Red Army member Kozo Okamoto

But Okamoto said, "I have finished my prison term in Israel, so it is not fair for the Japanese government to again put me on trial."

Okamoto was sentenced to life imprisonment in Israel for taking part with two other Japanese Red Army members in the May 1972 attack at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport, now called Ben Gurion Airport, that left 26 people dead and 76 others injured.

The two others, Tsuyoshi Okudaira and Yasuyuki Yasuda, died in the attack. Okamoto was released in 1985 as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Palestinian guerrillas.

Okamoto said he took part in the attack at the airport after Okudaira asked him to do so.

"I thought I would die in the gunbattle and thought I would be sentenced to death even if I had survived and had been caught," he said.

Asked whether he regretted shooting to death innocent people, Okamoto said, "I had no option but to shoot for the sake of armed struggle. Now I can only pray for the victims."

Okamoto said he went to Lebanon to take part in the Japanese Red Army's armed struggle after Japanese Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu asked him to do so.

The Japanese Red Army had advocated global revolution through such struggles. Shigenobu was arrested Nov. 8, 2000, in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, after earlier returning to Japan following nearly 30 years on the run.

He said he met with Shigenobu in 1997 in Beirut but had not seen other Japanese Red Army members since 1996.

After moving around in Libya and Syria, Okamoto and four other Japanese Red Army members were arrested in Lebanon in 1997 and sentenced to three years in prison for using forged passports. Their prison terms expired March 7, 2000.

While the four other members were forcibly sent to Japan, the Lebanese government granted political asylum to Okamoto saying he had participated in resistance operations against Israel and had been tortured in Israeli jails.

Okamoto is believed to have developed schizophrenia while in prison in Israel, and is now on medication to control the disease, but says he has no problems with everyday life with supporters' help.

Okamoto said Japanese Red Army members including Kunio Bando, 56, and Norio Sasaki, 54, who are on an international wanted list for hijacking a Japanese airplane near Dhaka in 1977, took care of him between 1985 when he was released from prison in Israel and the mid-1990s.

Okamoto said he now lives in an apartment in the suburbs of Beirut with Japanese supporters.

He said he leads a quiet life, taking walks and shopping, or listening to music on the radio, adding he is glad when Palestinians come up to him to offer to shake his hand in the street.

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