The government confirmed Wednesday that Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who was captured by an armed group in Syria three years ago, has been released and is now in Turkey, Foreign Minister Taro Kono announced.
Yasuda is apparently in good health, Kono told reporters at the Foreign Ministry, adding that the government will make arrangements so he can return home as soon as possible.
The official confirmation of the journalist’s identity came after Tokyo sent officials from the Japanese Embassy in Ankara to an immigration center in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, where Yasuda had been transported and placed under protection.
On Tuesday night, soon after the Japanese government was contacted by Qatar with knowledge of the transfer, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had told a hastily arranged news conference the man was “highly likely” to be Yasuda.
At a news conference Wednesday, Suga insisted no ransom had been paid.
He attributed Yasuda’s release to an effort by the Japanese government to seek cooperation from Turkey and Qatar via a special anti-terrorism intelligence unit Tokyo established in December 2015.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier welcomed the news, thanking Qatar and Turkey “for their great cooperation.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the Syrian civil war, also said that Yasuda had been released “four days ago” under a Turkish-Qatari deal, with some sources claiming a ransom had, in fact, been paid.
The group’s website said he was released after his kidnappers handed him to a non-Syrian military force close to Turkey.
But a senior Japanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had “absolutely no idea” about the veracity of the claim that Yasuda had been released four days earlier.
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., it 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 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.
Shuji Hosaka, an expert on the Middle East and Islamic militancy, said it was still too early to discern why Yasuda was freed now.
“It’s hard to say why he was released at this point in time” given the lack of information regarding which group had actually been holding Yasuda, said Hosaka, who serves as a senior research fellow and vice president of the JIME Center of The Institute of Energy Economics in Tokyo.
That being said, “I think it’s safe to say that tensions in the northern area of Syria, where Yasuda is believed to have been held, could have contributed to his release,” he added.
The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad “has been clamping down on the opposition in north Syria, and some anti-Assad forces are beginning to withdraw from the area,” Hosaka said. “In the case that the group that had held Yasuda captive had to withdraw from northern Syria, it would have been hard to take Yasuda with them, so they may have felt it was the right time to release him.”
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.
Over the last three years, a trickle of videos and photos of Yasuda pleading for help had emerged.
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 that 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.” It was unclear why he had referred to himself as a South Korean national.
The Japanese government was criticized for what detractors saw as its flat-footed response to the kidnapping crises, including apparently missed opportunities to free both Yukawa and Goto.
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.
Sakura Murakami contributed to this report
Chronology of events related to Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda
The following is a chronology of major events related to freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda who went missing after entering Syria:
June 23, 2015 — Yasuda goes unaccounted for after telling a friend in Japan he entered northwestern Syria from southern Turkey.
Mid-July 2015 — Yasuda fails to return after his scheduled date to do so.
March 16, 2016 — Footage of a man believed to be Yasuda reading out an English message to his family and home country is posted online. The man who uploaded the footage said Yasuda is being held captive by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked anti-government militant group in Syria.
Late May 2016 — Footage of a man believed to be Yasuda holding the message “please help,” written in Japanese, is sent to multiple media outlets.
Early July 2018 — Footage of a man believed to be Yasuda, who said in English he wanted to see his family, is uploaded to Facebook. The footage was said to have been shot on Oct. 17, 2017.
Late July — Footage showing a man, believed to be Yasuda, saying in Japanese, “My name is Umaru and I’m South Korean,” as well as “help,” surfaces online. The footage was said to have been shot on July 25, 2018.
Aug. 7 — Yasuda’s wife holds a news conference in Tokyo, urging captors to release him.
Oct. 23 — Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga says a man believed to be Yasuda has been released. (Kyodo)