In an online video released Tuesday, the Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese citizens unless Tokyo pays a ransom of $200 million within 72 hours.
The hostage crisis developed as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on the final leg of a six-day tour to the Middle East to pledge $200 million in non-military aid to countries in the region.
Abe vowed to save the men.
The video was posted on militant websites associated with the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm. It shows a man wearing a black mask and speaking English with a British accent standing over two kneeling hostages wearing orange jumpsuits.
It identified the two as freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, a private security contractor who was reportedly captured by a local armed group in August.
The speaker addresses the Japanese people, saying “You now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision by paying $200 million to save the lives of your citizens.” The man brandished a knife. “Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare,” he said.
The release of the video was apparently intended to coincide with Abe’s trip to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.
In the video, the man said he is demanding the money because Abe “has proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children and destroy the home of Muslims” and another $100 million “in an attempt to stop the expansion of the Islamic State.”
“It’s intolerable to make threats by taking hostages. We feel strongly indignant,” Abe told a news conference in Israel. He called for the hostages’ immediate release and said “their lives are the top priority.”
Abe said he would send Yasuhide Nakayama, state minister for foreign affairs, to Amman to seek Jordan’s support and to resolve the crisis. The prime minister also said the Israeli government, which Japan promised Sunday to cooperate with on counterterrorism, is sharing information to aid in the hostage crisis.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan is examining the video’s authenticity, and will not give in to threats.
“We will not give in to terrorism, and will continue contributing to the international community to fight against terrorism,” Suga said. “Our position won’t change.”
He said he was in contact with Abe in the Middle East, and that the prime minister ordered him to place “top priority” on saving the hostages’ lives.
Suga also said that the main purpose behind the aid to countries in the region is to provide non-military assistance, such as building infrastructure and increasing humanitarian assistance.
Later in the day, a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tokyo had not been approached by the militant group for any negotiations so far.
Meanwhile, a government expert who analyzed the video told reporters Tuesday night that it might be a “composite” — because the shadows of the two hostages seen on the ground are apparently facing in opposite directions.
But it wasn’t clear how the authenticity of the video could affect the course of events.
Yukawa, a private security contractor, is believed to have been traveling with rebel fighters from the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army when he was captured Aug. 14 by Islamic State during a firefight in Marea, roughly 30 km north of Aleppo.
He was visiting there to train with militants, according to a post on his blog kept. Pictures on his Facebook page show him in Iraq and Syria in July. One video on his page shows him holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle with the caption: “Syria war in Aleppo 2014.”
“I cannot identify the destination,” Yukawa wrote in his last blog post. “But the next one could be the most dangerous.” He added: “I hope to film my fighting scenes during an upcoming visit.”
Nobuo Kimoto, an adviser to Yukawa’s company and a former member of the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly, told NHK that he had worried “something like this could happen sooner or later.”
“I was afraid that they could use Yukawa as a card,” Kimoto said.
Goto, a freelance journalist from Sendai, set up his own video news agency, Independent Press, in 1996.
He reported extensively from Kobani, a besieged Kurdish town near Syria’s border with Turkey, uploading numerous interviews he conducted with residents there as recently as Oct. 3. The BBC said the last foreign journalist in the town was Swedish journalist Joakim Medin, who left Oct. 4.
Goto has specialized in reporting on civil wars around the world and their consequences on residents, especially children. He has written numerous books, ranging from an account of an Afghan girl hoping to go to school, to reportage on a 16-year-old mother infected with the HIV virus in a town in Estonia, where rampant drug abuse has spread the infectious disease among a large portion of its residents.
In 2006, he won a children’s book award by the Sankei Shimbun for his 2005 volume titled “Daiyamondo yori Heiwa ga Hoshii,” (“I Want Peace Rather Than a Diamond”), a nonfiction book about a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who, severely traumatized by the civil war there, is trying to rebuild his life.
The Islamic State group has beheaded and shot dead hundreds of captives — mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers — during its sweep across the two countries, and has celebrated its mass killings in extremely graphic videos. A British-accented jihadi also appeared in the beheading videos of slain American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and with British hostages David Haines and Alan Henning.
The group also holds British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has appeared in other extremist propaganda videos, and a 26-year-old American woman captured last year in Syria while working for aid groups. U.S. officials have asked that the woman not be identified out of fears for her safety.
Tuesday’s video marks the first time the Islamic State group specifically has demanded cash for hostages.
Information from AP, Kyodo added