TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed outrage and demanded Wednesday that Islamic State extremists release a Japanese journalist, as secret talks in Jordan sought the release of the Japanese and a Jordanian pilot also being held hostage.
The effort to free Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh gained urgency with the release of an apparent ultimatum late Tuesday from the Islamic State group.
In the message, the extremists say the two hostages will be killed within 24 hours — late Wednesday night Japan time — unless Jordan frees Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack on a hotel that killed 60 people.
“This was an extremely despicable act and we feel strong indignation. We strongly condemn that,” Abe said. “While this is a tough situation, we remain unchanged in our stance of seeking help from the Jordanian government in securing the early release of Mr. Goto.”
In Jordan, the pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, beseeched the government “to meet the demands” of the Islamic State group.
“All people must know, from the head of the regime to everybody else, that the safety of Mu’ath means the stability of Jordan, and the death of Mu’ath means chaos in Jordan,” he told The Associated Press.
About 200 of the pilot’s relatives protested outside the prime minister’s office in the Jordanian capital of Amman, chanting anti-government slogans and urging that it meet the captors’ demands.
A member of Jordan’s parliament said the country was in indirect talks with the militants to secure the hostages’ release. Bassam Al-Manasseer, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told Bloomberg News the negotiations are taking place through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq, adding that Jordan and Japan won’t negotiate directly with IS and won’t free al-Rishawi in exchange for Goto only.
A prisoner exchange would be contrary to the policy of Jordan’s main ally, the U.S., which opposes negotiating with extremists. Manaseer’s comments were the strongest suggestion yet that Japan and Jordan might be open to a prisoner exchange.
Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama was in Amman to coordinate hostage-release efforts withJordan, but refused comment on details of the talks early Wednesday.
Goto’s mother expressed hope for his release, but also desperation.
“What has my child done wrong?” she said. “There’s no more time.”
The hostage saga involving the two Japanese nationals has stunned Japan and triggered criticism of Abe over the handling of the crisis. The militants reportedly have beheaded one Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa.
Tuesday’s video resembled a message released over the weekend showing a still photo of Goto holding what appeared to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It withdrew a demand for $200 million in ransom for Goto and Yukawa made in an earlier message.
The AP could not independently verify any of the videos, all of which lack the logo of the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm. But some militant websites affiliated with the Islamic State group referenced the latest video and posted links to it Tuesday.
The latest message condemns Jordan for not releasing al-Rishawi, saying that unless she is freed within 24 hours, the pilot, followed by Goto, will be killed. It says it is the group’s last message.
“I have only 24 hours left to live and the pilot has even less,” says the audio, purportedly from Goto.
Messages from other Western hostages held by the group have been read by the captives on camera and it is unclear why the group released only a recording and still picture.
Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, 26, has been held by the militants since his Jordanian F-16 crashed near the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in December. He is the first foreign military pilot they have captured since a U.S.-led coalition that includes Jordan began its aerial campaign against the Islamic State group in August.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the pilot’s possible release had entered into the negotiations.
This is the first time that the group has publicly demanded the release of prisoners in exchange for hostages. Previous captives may have been released in exchange for ransom, although the governments involved have refused to confirm any payments were made.
Goto, a freelance journalist, was seized in October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue Yukawa, 42, who was captured by the militants last summer.
Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was dead.
Securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State and would allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, said her family was told the Islamic State group also wants his release as part of a swap, but it is unclear if that was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage.
Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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