U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney will fly into rapidly mounting security fears following the abduction of Japanese and South Korean nationals in Iraq, as he begins a three-country Asian tour Friday.

Cheney, whose week-long visit takes in Japan, South Korea and China, is Expected to hear strong concerns from Japanese and South Korean leaders, a senior administration official said in Washington.

"The unfortunate developments, ... the kidnapping of the Korean and Japanese citizens, I expect to be very much on their minds," the official said. Three Japanese have been taken hostage in Iraq, while seven South Koreans were captured and released unharmed Thursday amid some of the fiercest fighting between insurgents and U.S.-led forces since the fall of Baghdad a year ago.

The gunmen have threatened to burn the three Japanese hostages alive unless Tokyo pulls its troops out of Iraq, according to a message received by the Qatar-based Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has vowed he will not give in to their demands. The three-day deadline for the three hostages expires on Sunday, the day of Cheney's visit to Japan.

The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cheney believed it was important "to stay the course� on Iraq, both in terms of keeping forces in Iraq and in meeting a June 30 U.S.-imposed deadline for turning over civilian control.

Cheney heads to Beijing next Tuesday, a trip originally scheduled for a year ago, then postponed "primarily because of developments in the Middle East and the war on terror," the official said.

During his stay in China, Cheney will meet Chinese leaders on bilateral relations and issues of common concern, official media reported Friday. He will also deliver a speech at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University.

Japan has deployed some 550 troops to the southern Iraqi city of Samawa for humanitarian work, despite widespread opposition on the grounds the move violated the country's post-war pacifist constitution. South Korea has said it still plans to send more than 3,000 troops to Iraq.

Both governments face mounting domestic protests against their deployment plans. In South Korea, the issue has appeared during campaigning for parliamentary elections on April 15�the day Cheney lands in Seoul.

The U.S. official said he expected Cheney to reassure leaders in all three Countries that occupying forces in Iraq would transfer power to Iraqis on June 30 as scheduled. #####


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