Iran says Japanese held by bandits still in country

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TEHRAN, Oct 17 (Reuters) A Japanese student kidnapped last week by bandits is healthy and believed to be still in Iran, a senior Iranian official was quoted as telling Japan's visiting vice foreign minister today.

The 23-year-old man was abducted nine days ago while travelling in the southeastern province of Kerman. He was the latest tourist to be seized in a region notorious for clashes between security forces and drug smugglers.

Iranian officials have said security forces launched a large-scale operation to find him but ruled out any deal with his abductors after reports the bandits had offered to exchange the student for the jailed son of their head.

''Based on the latest news received the Japanese student kidnapped in eastern Iran is healthy,'' Mohammad Ali Shahidi, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, told his Japanse counterpart, the official IRNA news agency reported.

''Reports received also indicate that this person has not left Iran,'' he told Japanese Senior Vice Foreign Minister Itsunori Onodera.

Southeastern Iran has been the scene of numerous clashes between the military and well-armed drug smugglers.

Other tourists, including a couple from Belgium, have been abducted there recently. Some have been held for weeks as kidnappers tried to secure the release of relatives from jail.

Iran's border regions with Afghanistan and Pakistan are a major smuggling route for drugs and other contraband. More than 3,300 Iranian security personnel have died in the region fighting drug traffickers since Iran's 1979 revolution.

REUTERS CS BST0110

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