Jan 27, 2015 2:56 AM

Japan special envoy hopeful about release of hostage, pilot

The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) A Japanese envoy in Jordan expressed hope that both Japanese hostage Kenji Goto and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic militants will return home "with a smile on their faces," as questions rose Tuesday over the government's handling of the crisis.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama seemed determined, saying he believed there were "firm ties" between Japan and Jordan.

"I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate, and for the two countries (Japan and Jordan) to cooperate, in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr. Goto, can both safely return to their own countries with a smile on their faces," Nakayama, a lawmaker send to coordinate efforts in Amman to save two Japanese hostages of the Islamic State group, said late Monday night.

It was the first mention by a Japanese official of Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Mu'ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremist Islamic State group after crashing in December. It wasn't clear when the pilot's possible release had entered the picture.

The issue of a prisoner swap is sensitive, given Jordanian concern over the pilot, and Nakayama emerged from the Japanese Embassy on Tuesday with no new updates.

"There are other parties involved, so I don't want to comment on details of the negotiations," he said.

Goto, a journalist, was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer who was captured by the militants last summer.

Over the weekend, an unverified video surfaced showing a still photo of Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of Yukawa's body. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rashawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people.

The message retracted a demand for payment of $200 million in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Goto unless al-Rashawi was released.

Japanese officials are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was killed. However, the new message varied greatly from previous videos released by the Islamic State group, and The Associated Press could not verify its contents and whether they actually reflect the group's demands.

Securing the release of al-Rashawi would be a propaganda coup for the Islamic State, enabling the group to reaffirm links to al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rashawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.

In Tokyo on Tuesday, an interfaith gathering of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians holding placards and banners reading, "Free Goto" and "I am Kenji," gathered outside the parliament.

"Islam is not about someone calling himself Muslim and committing the crime of killing. This is not Islam," said Muhammad Yusuf Othman, a Muslim teacher.

In Japan, some are critical of Goto and Yukawa for traveling to the risky area. Some also are criticizing Abe, the prime minister, for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.

Despite Japan's heavy reliance on Middle Eastern oil and gas, its diplomatic pipeline in the region is thin, experts say.

"When it comes to Islamic affairs and Islamic law, the government's expertise and connections are extremely weak," said Ko Nakata, a Muslim convert and former Islamic expert at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Last week, he offered to try to help secure the hostages' release but there was no public response from the government.

Abe's envoy Nakayama, 44, is a former advertisement agency employee with a sports science degree and hardly any experience in Middle East, though his official profile shows he has joined defense and national security panels.

As parliamentary debate resumed Tuesday, lawmaker Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Abe on how the government has handled the hostages' cases since when Yukawa was seized in August.

He noted Abe's explicit mention of the Islamic State in an announcement of $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists something also mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.

Japan has no military role in the conflict, but Abe has been pushing to expand the role for Japan's troops one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation's defeat in World War II.

But Abe defended his performance. The $200 million contribution was aimed at "providing food and medicine to save the lives of more than 10 million people, including refugees and children who have lost their homes, shivering in cold and suffering from illnesses."

"Our contribution has won high praises from the international community," he said.

"If we fear the risks so much that we succumb to the terrorists' threats, we won't be able to make any humanitarian contributions to countries surrounding the area of conflict," Abe said. "Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way."


Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman, and Ken Moritsugu, Kaori Hitomi, Koji Ueda and Emily Wang in Tokyo contributed to this report.


Follow Elaine Kurtenbach on Twitter at twitter.com/ekurtenbach


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