AMMAN/TOKYO (REUTERS) – Japan was working closely with Jordan on Friday to find out what was happening to a Japanese journalist held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after a deadline passed for the release of an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber on death-row in Jordan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said every effort was being made to secure the release of journalist Kenji Goto.
“We are gathering and analysing information while asking for cooperation from Jordan and other countries, making every effort to free Kenji Goto,” Abe told a parliamentary panel.
Jordan said on Thursday it was still holding Sajida al-Rishawi, the Iraqi woman on death row, as a deadline passed for her release set by the militants, who threatened to kill a Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh.
An audio message purportedly from Goto said the pilot would be killed unless Jordan freed Rishawi, who is on death row for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack that killed 60 people in Amman. The message postponed a previous deadline set on Tuesday in which Goto said he would be killed within 24 hours if Rishawi was not freed.unless she was handed over by sunset.
The hostage crisis comes as ISIS, which has already released videos showing the beheadings of five Western hostages, is coming under increased military pressure from US-led air strikes and by Kurdish and Iraqi troops pushing to reverse the Islamist group’s territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.
About an hour before the new deadline was due to pass, government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Jordan was still holding Rishawi.
“We want proof ... that the pilot is alive so that we can proceed with what we said yesterday – exchanging the prisoner with our pilot,” Momani told Reuters. The pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against Islamic State.
Momani said separately that Jordan was coordinating with Japanese authorities in an effort to secure the release of Goto, a veteran war reporter.
Goto’s wife urged both governments to work for her husband’s release, saying in a statement to Reuters and other media that she feared this was his last chance.
In the latest audio recording purportedly of Goto, he said that Kasaesbeh would be killed “immediately” if Rishawi was not at the Turkish border by sunset on Thursday, Iraq time, ready to be exchanged for the Japanese hostage. That was some time around 1430 GMT on Thursday.
The implication that the Jordanian pilot would not be part of an exchange deal has left Jordan in a difficult position. Protests have erupted in Karak, hometown of the pilot, who is from an important Jordanian tribe that forms the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy.
In Japan, the hostage crisis is the biggest diplomatic test for Abe since he took office in 2012 pledging to play a bigger role in global security. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told journalists that Tokyo had asked Jordan to beef up protection of its diplomats in the country on Friday, the birthday of Jordanian King Abdullah. Jordanian comments have raised concerns in Japan that Goto might not be part of any deal between Amman and Islamic State.
“I hope the negotiations materialize,” Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, told reporters at her Tokyo home late on Thursday. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said, when asked what she would do if negotiations failed.
Abe has repeatedly said Japan would not give in to terrorism and would keep cooperating with the international community.
The hostage crisis erupted after Abe, while on a tour of the Middle East, announced US$200 million in non-military aid for countries opposing ISIS, but his government has rejected any suggestion it acted rashly and stressed the assistance was humanitarian.
Goto went to Syria in late October. According to friends and business associates, he was attempting to secure the release of Haruna Yukawa, his friend and fellow Japanese citizen who was captured by ISIS in August. In the first video purportedly of Goto, released last week, a black-clad masked figure with a knife said Goto and Yukawa would be killed within 72 hours if Japan did not pay ISIS US$200 million.
A video on Saturday appeared to show Goto with a picture of a decapitated Yukawa, saying his captors’ demands had switched to the release of al-Rishawi. Tuesday’s video featured an audio track over a still picture that appeared to show Goto holding a picture of a now bearded Kasaesbeh.