National

Japanese officials silent as hostage clock ticks

by Reiji Yoshida, Masaaki Kameda and Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writers

With only one presumed day left to save the lives of two Japanese hostages, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday the government had been unable to make contact with the Islamic State group.

A masked militant with a knife declared in a video on Tuesday that Tokyo had 72 hours to pay a $200 million ransom for their release.

“No, we haven’t received any contact” from the radical Islamist group, Suga told a news conference.

But political correspondents in Tokyo suspect Japan may already be in secret talks — or is trying to arrange them — despite what they are saying in public.

In what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described as a “race against time,” Tokyo is scrambling to secure the release of journalist Kenji Goto, 47, and private security contractor Haruna Yukawa, 42.

Reporters fired volleys of questions at Suga about the chances for talks and whether Tokyo would pay, but he parried by declining comment on either issue.

Asked separately about negotiations, one senior government official on Thursday said: “You (reporters) can’t tell what’s actually going on, right?”

Agreeing to pay the ransom or compromise could encourage further extortion bids. Ruling them out could kill the two men and perhaps make Abe look like he abandoned them.

The United States and Britain maintain a zero-concessions policy, but it is believed some European countries have repeatedly paid to free captured citizens, although in many cases the negotiations and ransom amounts are never publicly divulged.

Japanese as well are often kidnapped overseas, but the government and Japanese companies seldom confirm whether ransoms were paid for their release.

Abe and Suga have repeatedly pledged never to “give in” to terrorism and restated Japan’s commitment to backing the international community in fighting it.

At the same time, they said “saving the lives of the two” is the government’s top priority.

Suga denied this represented a contradiction.

“We don’t think there are any contradictions. It’s a matter of course for a state to put the top priority on saving the lives (of its citizens),” Suga said Thursday.

“At the same time we won’t give in to terrorism, and we will keep contributing to efforts by the international society to deal with terrorism.”

Suga also emphasized that the economic assistance Abe pledged to nations in the Middle East this week is nonlethal aid intended to help refugees and displaced people — countering the hostage-taker’s assertion that the funds will be used to kill Muslims.

In a related move Thursday, a Muslim Japanese who is an expert in Islamic law proposed that he be used as an intermediary to resolve the situation and suggested that Tokyo offer humanitarian aid to refugees in the area that the extremists control in exchange for the hostages’ freedom.

Ko Nakata, a visiting professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said he has a way to communicate with the Islamic State group.

At a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, he offered to travel to the area controlled by the group to help.

A briefing paper provided to reporters said Nakata has many friends in Syria, where he has traveled over 10 times.

The document said last August that a commander in the Islamic State group contacted Nakata and told him that Yukawa was going on trial. The individual asked Nakata to find someone who is both familiar with Islamic law and who can speak Arabic and Japanese, and a reporter to cover the trial.

Yukawa was reportedly abducted earlier that month.

At the press conference Thursday, Nakata addressed his “friends in the Islamic State” in both Japanese and Arabic and called for an extension of the 72-hour deadline, saying it was too short for negotiations to take place.

Other media outlets pondered when the 72-hour period exactly began.

Asked about Nakata’s proposal, Suga had no comment on it per se. The government “is exploring every possible way” to save the hostages’ lives, he replied.

Sources say Japan regards Jordan and Turkey as key allies in its efforts to establish a channel of contact with the extremists.

Jordan, where Japan has set up a headquarters for the negotiations, and Turkey, which has experience in freeing hostages from the Islamic State group, are expected to provide assistance, the sources said.

Japan is seeking ways to negotiate with the extremists through tribal leaders in Syria or local Muslim leaders. It also is trying to obtain information from third-party countries.

At his news conference, Nakata argued that Tokyo should provide humanitarian assistance for people in areas controlled by the Islamic State group. Abe had earlier promised aid only for people outside that zone.

“My proposal is to offer the same amount of money demanded by the Islamic State on the condition it be solely used for assistance and humanitarian aid to refugees through the Red Crescent Societies, with the intermediation of Turkey,” Nakata said.

“Or with the condition that the aid be utilized only for families who have suffered in Syria and Iraq,” Nakata said.

At a separate news conference at the FCCJ later in the day, Muslim convert Kosuke Tsuneoka, a freelance journalist with years of experience in the Islamic world, said the two men would almost certainly be killed. He described their situation as “hopeless,” saying the Islamic State group is notorious for following through on publicized death threats.

Last year, Tokyo police raided Tsuneoka’s home and questioned him over his possible links with the group. On Thursday he said his contacts in the region were of great value, declaring that whatever chances the hostages have depend on him and Nakata.

“If there is any chance (the pair) will come through the crisis alive, direct dialogue with the Islamic State is the only way to go,” Tsuneoka said. “We have a channel of communication with (the group). But at the moment, the Japanese government doesn’t seem inclined to ask for our help. That’s the biggest problem.”

Tsuneoka, a Muslim for the past 15 years, was captured by an armed group while reporting in Afghanistan in 2010. Last fall, police interrogated him on suspicion he had been involved in helping a Hokkaido University student prepare to join Islamic State militants in Syria.

Information From Kyodo Added

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5