The government officially confirmed Wednesday that a man believed to be Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who was captured by an armed group in Syria three years ago and is now in Turkey, is indeed the kidnapped freelance reporter.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono made the announcement, telling reporters that Yasuda is in good health.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had told a news conference late Tuesday night that the man was almost certainly Yasuda.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier welcomed the news of Yasuda’s reported release.
“I would like to thank Qatar and Turkey for their great cooperation,” Abe said.
Suga said in a separate news conference Wednesday that no ransom was paid, adding that Yasuda was released as a result of the Japanese government asking for cooperation from Turkey and Qatar.
The government sent officials from the Japanese Embassy in Ankara to the southern Turkish city of Antakya, after being told by the Qatari government that Yasuda had been taken to an immigration facility in the city.
The Japanese government first obtained information around 7:40 p.m. Tuesday that a man believed to be Yasuda would be released by the end of the day.
At 9 p.m., Tokyo received a report from Qatar that the man had already been released and was at an immigration facility in Antakya, according to Suga.
Yasuda, now 44, went missing after entering Syria’s Idlib province from neighboring Turkey into in June 2015 while reporting on Syria’s bloody civil war.
He was reportedly held by an arm of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an al-Qaida-linked militant group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front. The group was reported to have been seeking a $10 million (¥1.1 billion) ransom.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the Syrian civil war, also said that Yasuda had been released under a Turkish-Qatari deal, AFP reported, with some sources saying a ransom had actually been paid.
“He was released after his kidnappers handed him to a non-Syrian military force close to Turkey. He had been held in western parts of Idlib province,” Observatory director Rami Abdelrahman was quoted as saying.
In March 2016, footage of a man believed to be Yasuda reading out an English message to his family and home country was posted online, with a Syrian man who uploaded the video, contacted by Kyodo News, saying he received it from a go-between for the Nusra Front.
In May of that year, an image showing a bearded man that appeared to be Yasuda holding a handwritten message that said in Japanese, “Please help. This is my last chance. Yasuda Jumpei” also emerged.
Most recently, videos showing a man believed to be Yasuda were also posted online last July. In one of them, the man is seen clad in an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in front of a wall, as two black-clad militants wearing balaclava-like masks stand behind him wielding machine-guns.
In the video, which bore some resemblance to the slick productions employed by the Islamic State (IS) group, which executed Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa in 2015, the man says in Japanese, “My name is Umaru and I’m South Korean. I am in a very severe condition. Please help me, right now.”
The Japanese government was criticized for what detractors saw as its flat-footed response to the crisis at the time, including apparently missed opportunities to free both Yukawa and Goto.
Syria’s Idlib province, where Yasuda was believed kidnapped, is one of the last Syrian rebel strongholds, where anti-government forces and radical groups defeated by the government forces are transferred, and many foreign combatants remain.
In 2004, Yasuda was held by an armed group in Iraq while covering a conflict in the country but was released unhurt along with another Japanese man three days later.
In the years since, Yasuda continued to cover the Middle East. A native of Iruma, Saitama Prefecture, he started his journalism career in 1997 as a reporter with the Shinano Mainichi Shimbun, a local newspaper based in Nagano Prefecture before becoming a freelance journalist in 2003.