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Seven die in latest Japanese online suicide pact

Seven people have killed themselves within hours of each other in Japan in the latest round of suicides committed after pacts made on the Internet.

Four people in their 20s and 30s were found dead in a car in a mountainside parking lot in Tochigi prefecture late on Monday. Shortly before 10am yesterday, the bodies of three people, including a 14-year-old girl, were found 30 miles away inside a car parked on a dry riverbed.

All seven had apparently died from carbon monoxide poisoning after sealing themselves in the vehicles and inhaling the fumes from charcoal stoves. Police said suicide notes had been found in both cars. The note in the second vehicle indicated that the victims had arranged to die together in Internet chatrooms.

At least 20 people have killed themselves in group suicides in Japan this year. Last year, 55 were known to have made suicide pacts compared with 34 in 2003, but police admit the true figure may be far higher.

Alienated youngsters who leave school with few qualifications and no long-term job prospects are most vulnerable. They meet like-minded people in chatrooms and formulate plans to die together, discussing every detail of how they will spend their final hours.

Several Internet service providers have blocked access to these sites, but others can easily be found. "Everything is horrible, I want to die," reads one recent posting. "Who will die with me?"

The victims take strength from the idea of dying alongside other people. "Dying alone is lonely," Yukio Saito, who runs a suicide helpline, told Reuters. In the absence of strong religious or cultural taboos against suicide, many Japanese see taking their lives as an honourable route out of personal or professional crises.

Terumasa Koyanagi, the former president of a railway company involved in a financial scandal, became the latest high-profile victim last month.

Suicide sites have been credited with giving troubled youngsters a forum to discuss their feelings anonymously, and there have been reports of users being talked out of killing themselves.

The focus on group suicides arranged on the Internet has been blamed for diverting attention from the bigger problem of why so many Japanese choose to die by their own hand. Group suicides account for only about 2% of the total in Japan, which has the highest suicide rate in the developing world. Suicides are the country's sixth biggest killer.

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