National

Fate of Japanese hostages uncertain as deadline passes

Wire, Staff Reports

The fate of two Japanese men taken hostage by the Islamic State group remained unknown Saturday as the militants apparently had not made any announcements since the presumed deadline for paying the $200 million ransom expired a day earlier.

In Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry held a meeting on the crisis Saturday morning but came up empty-handed.

“We just examined the current situation and have nothing new to report,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Yasuhide Nakayama, a senior Japanese diplomat overseeing a task force set up in Amman, Jordan, said Friday night the situation remained tense.

“But we remain focused on gathering information and combing through it,” he told reporters. “We in the government will pull through this together and put priority on saving human lives.”

Senior officials in Tokyo said they have been unable to establish contact with the Islamic extremists and thus were unable to negotiate for the hostages’ lives.

Tokyo is trying to get a message to the extremists via Syria’s neighbors and through influential religious and tribal leaders in the region.

“Our message should have reached (them),” the official said, without elaborating.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered his administration to make every effort to secure their release, setting off a flurry of activity in the diplomatic corps.

The militant group had given Abe a 72-hour deadline — which expired Friday afternoon— to pay $200 million, a demand that matched the $200 million in aid Abe pledged to countries that are fighting Islamist militants.

However, sources familiar with the matter said diplomats had told the families of the two captives before the video’s release that no ransom would be paid.

Still, Japan is aiming to get the hostages back alive while seeking support from Middle Eastern countries, tribal chiefs and religious leaders. But a senior official confirmed little progress had been made.

Of the countries supporting Japan, Turkey is considered particularly important because it has been the main entry point into Syria for foreigners joining the Islamic State group. It also won the release of nearly 50 Turks held hostage by the group last year.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeated a call for the immediate release of “these civilians and all other hostages that they (the Islamic State group) may be holding.”

“The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter,” Earnest told a news conference.

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. government “certainly, strongly” condemns the group’s threat to murder Japanese citizens.

On Friday, militants apparently affiliated with the Islamic State group posted an online warning that the “countdown has begun” for the executions of Kenji Goto, 47, and Haruna Yukawa, 42.

The warning, which appeared Friday, shows a clock counting down to zero along with gruesome images of other hostages who beheaded by the Islamic State group. It was posted on a forum popular among Islamic State militants and sympathizers but did not show any images of the Japanese hostages.

In the past, the website has posted the group’s videos very quickly, sometimes before anyone else, but their authenticity remained questionable as they did not carry the hallmark image of an Islamic State flag or a logo. Nippon Television Network first reported the message.

In Tokyo, Abe’s team considered whether planned legislative changes would provide the legal basis for a military strike on the militants and concluded it did not, according to a briefing document reviewed by Reuters.

The capture of two Japanese in Syria represents an “unacceptable act of terror,” the document said before concluding the situation would not meet the legal conditions for deploying the Self-Defense Forces, whose activities abroad are constrained by the postwar Constitution, despite plans to change the interpretation of the war-renouncing charter.

Abe’s handling of the hostage crisis — he must appear firm but not callous — will be a big test for the 60-year-old, but he appears to have few options.

Few are likely to blame Abe if the captives are killed, but questions could be raised over why he singled out countries battling the Islamic State for the aid when it was known the group was holding the two Japanese.

“Just when they held hostages and considered what they should do about them, Mr. Abe offered something that would, in their (the Islamic State’s) logic, raise the hurdle (for solving the problem),” said Motohiro Ono, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker and expert on Middle East affairs.