The presumed 72-hour deadline for paying the exorbitant ransom demanded by the Islamic State group apparently expired at 2:50 p.m. Friday without any hint about what would happen to the two Japanese hostages in its grasp.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the No. 2 man in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, said Tokyo had not received any correspondence from the Islamic extremists as of Friday afternoon.
“We haven’t received any particular” messages from the Islamic State group about the apparent expiration of the deadline, Suga told the news conference, which started shortly after 4 p.m.
“The situation remains very tough.”
Later in the day, a high-ranking official denied speculation the deadline may have been extended by secret negotiations with the terrorist group.
“That’s not the case,” the official said, adding the government had seen few developments to inspire optimism.
On Friday morning, the same official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tokyo was not engaged in any substantial negotiations with the armed jihadis over conditions for winning the release of the two men.
In a video uploaded to websites Tuesday, a masked English-speaking man with a British accent threatened to kill journalist Kenji Goto, 47, and private security contractor Haruna Yukawa, 42, after 72 hours if Japan did not pay a ransom of $200 million.
The masked man did not explicitly say when the 72-hour time span started. The government came across the video clip at around 2:50 p.m. Tuesday and presumed it was the starting point of the group’s demand.
Meanwhile, Japanese police have raised the national terrorism alert “to the top level,” and strengthened monitoring at immigration offices across the country, another senior official said Friday.
“This is nothing about religion. We are trying to gather information about terrorism,” the official said, suggesting the government has begun to more closely monitor certain Muslims entering or leaving the country.
On Thursday, the United States informally made known to Japan its position against making ransom payments to terrorists, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
The U.S. view is that “it puts citizens at risk and it certainly is not a policy that we here in the United States implement or we support,” Psaki told a press conference, adding, “I think Japan knows our long-standing position on that issue.”
She added that Washington has privately conveyed its position and that Tokyo is familiar with it.
But in Tokyo on Friday, Suga said he was “not aware of” such a message from the U.S., apparently ignoring Psaki’s comment, which was widely reported by Japanese media outlets.
Over the past three days, Suga has been repeatedly asked by reporters if Tokyo is willing to pay a ransom to the terrorist group.
Suga didn’t answer directly, only repeating Japan “will not give in to terrorism” and that it has put “top priority” on saving the lives of the two hostages.
Meanwhile, according to Kyodo News, the government has desperately been trying to contact the Islamic State group through an email address used to demand the ransom from Goto’s wife.
A government source said no response had been received from the group as of Thursday night, Kyodo News reported.
According to the source, Goto’s wife received an email message in November notifying the family that the freelance journalist had been kidnapped.
Since then, around 10 more email messages have been sent to her, Kyodo reported.The email, allegedly sent by the armed group, reportedly included information that only Goto and members of his family could have known.
In January, the group issued a demand to Goto’s wife, asking her to pay around ¥2 billion in euros as a ransom, the source said. Earlier reports said the ¥2 billion ransom had been demanded in December.
Information from Kyodo added
Japanese hostage crises: a timeline
The deadline set by Islamic militants threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless Tokyo pays a $200 million ransom passed Friday with no news of their fate.
Here are some key hostage crises that have embroiled Japanese nationals abroad in the past.
September 1977: Five armed members of the Japanese Red Army hijack a Japan Airlines plane with 156 people on board while en route from Paris to Tokyo.
The hijackers order it to be flown to Dhaka and demand $6 million and the release of nine imprisoned JRA members.
Prime minister Takeo Fukuda accepts the hijackers’ demands, saying “human life is heavier than the Earth.”
Six imprisoned JRA members are released and the hostages are freed in Bangladesh.
November 1986: The Manila office chief of trading giant Mitsui is kidnapped in a suburb by five armed men. A ransom of $10 million is reportedly paid and the hostage is released.
December 1996: Left-wing militants take hundreds of diplomats and others hostage during a party at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru.
The siege lasts more than 100 days before the Peruvian military moves in. One captive and all the hostage-takers are killed.
October 1999: Japanese geologists Haruo Harada, Hirotaro Fujii, Nobuhisa Nakajima and Toshiaki Ariie and their interpreter are set free in Kyrgyzstan after being held for two months by Islamic rebels entering from Tajikistan.
The ransom for the four was reportedly described as a few tons of flour and a sum ranging from $2 million to $5 million, but a Japanese official denied paying a ransom and said he was of the belief that neither did Kyrgyzstan.
April 2004: Three Japanese spend a week in captivity in Iraq after being snatched by a group calling itself the Mujahedeen Brigades.
They demand the pullout of Japanese troops. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejects the demand but the three are later released unharmed, reportedly after interventions by Muslim leaders.
The three, volunteer aid workers Noriaki Imai, (18 at the time) and Nahoko Takato, along with photojournalist Soichiro Koriyama, both in their 30s, are roundly criticized upon their return to Japan for being irresponsible and putting themselves at risk.
October 2004: Backpacker Shosei Koda, 24, is killed in Iraq by Islamists after Koizumi refuses to pull Japan’s 550 troops out of the country.
Koda’s head and his body with hands and feet bound are found wrapped in a U.S. flag in Baghdad. The SDF soldiers were on a mission to help rebuild the war-torn country.
The al-Qaida-linked group run by Iraq’s most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, posts a video and photos on the Internet showing three hooded men pouncing on the young tourist.
The militants say they spurned an offer from Tokyo of “millions of dollars in ransom” to save Koda. Japan denies offering the ransom.
September 2010: Freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, then 41, is freed unhurt after a five-month hostage ordeal in Afghanistan at the hands of Hizb-i-Islami.
Tsuneoka subsequently becomes known in Japan for his expertise on Islamic issues.
January 2013: Militants storm an isolated gas plant in Algeria, one of the country’s largest upstream facilities, killing dozens of people over a four-day siege.
Ten Japanese are dead by the time Algerian commandos gain control of the site, the worst single death toll for any of the countries involved.