As Japanese diplomats worked to secure the release of freelance journalist Kenji Goto, who is being held hostage by the extremist Islamic State group, reports emerged that the militants may be pushing for a two-for-two prisoner exchange.
Reports in domestic media and in the English-language Jordan Times said there was the possibility that the Islamic State group would demand the release of not just Iraqi Sajida al-Rishawi, a would-be suicide bomber who took part in the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman, but also another detained Iraqi terrorist, Ziad Al Karboli, in return for detained Jordanian pilot Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, who was taken hostage late last year when his plane crashed in Syria. Goto could be included in such an exchange, a separate report said.
In Washington, a U.S. government spokeswoman suggested opposition Monday to exchanging Goto for al-Rishawi.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said meeting the captors’ demand would be “in the same category” as paying a ransom and both would constitute a concession to terrorists.
Speaking at a news conference, Psaki declined to go into details about the role the U.S. government is playing over the demand by the group that al-Rishawi be released in exchange for freeing journalist Kenji Goto.
The United States is involved in “ongoing discussions, diplomatic exchanges with Japan,” Psaki said.
Psaki denied there is a contradiction between U.S. words and actions when comparing Goto’s case with last year’s swap of a U.S. Army sergeant for five Taliban commanders.
“That’s an entirely different situation” as Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was being held “as a prisoner of war,” Psaki said.
Earlier Monday, Japanese officials refused direct comment on the contents of talks in Jordan, where Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama is coordinating regional efforts to save Goto.
The Islamic State group said in an online video on Jan. 20 that it had two Japanese hostages and would kill them within 72 hours unless Japan paid it $200 million — the same amount Tokyo recently pledged in aid to nations fighting the militants.
Over the weekend, a new, unverified video showed a still photo of Goto, a 47-year-old journalist, holding a picture of what appears to be the body of fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors now want the release of al-Rishawi instead of a ransom.
Asked if the latest demand makes the situation more complex, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga avoided a straight answer. But he said, “Naturally, Jordan has its own thoughts.
“The government is doing its utmost as the situation is still developing,” he told reporters. “We are seeking cooperation from every possible party toward a release (of the remaining hostage).”
Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa, a 42-year-old self-styled security contractor captured in Syria last summer, was killed.
“It was an extremely dastardly act,” Suga said.
In Amman, Deputy Foreign Minister Nakayama emerged from meetings with no fresh progress to report.
“Due to the nature of this problem, please understand why I cannot disclose information such as with whom I had meetings,” he said.
Nakayama vowed to “absolutely not give up until the end.”
News of the likely killing of Yukawa drew international condemnation, and outrage in Japan. Goto is thought to have been seized in late October after going there to try to rescue him.
Some in Japan are critical of the two men for taking such risks. Some Japanese also are criticizing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.
Abe has pushed to expand the role for Japan’s troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist Constitution adopted after the nation’s defeat in World War II.
While on a visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Abe announced $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the militants.