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Jan 20, 2015 5:31 AM

Japanese premier vows to save Islamic State group hostages

The Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) The Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese hostages Tuesday unless they receive $200 million in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Japan's premier during his visit to the Middle East. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to save the men, saying: "Their lives are the top priority."

However, Abe and other Japanese officials declined to say whether they'd make the payment to save the men, identified in an extremist video released Tuesday as Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa.

The video, identified as being made by the Islamic State group's al-Furqan media arm and posted on militant websites associated with the extremist group, mirrored other hostage threats it has made. Japanese officials said they would analyze the tape to verify its authenticity, though Abe offered no hesitation as he pledged to free the men while speaking to journalists in Jerusalem.

"It is unforgivable," said Abe, now on a six-day visit to the Middle East with more than 100 government officials and presidents of Japanese companies. He added: "Extremism and Islam are completely different things."

In the video, the two men appear in orange jumpsuits like other hostages previously killed by the Islamic State group, which controls a third of Iraq and Syria.

"To the prime minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,000 and 500 kilometers (5,280 miles) from the Islamic State, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," says the knife-brandishing militant in the video, who resembles and sounds like a British militant involved in other filmed beheadings. "You have proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims."

Abe said he would send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister, to Amman, Jordan, to seek the country's support and to resolve the hostage crisis. The premier also said the Israeli government, which Japan promised Sunday to cooperate with on counterterrorism, are sharing information to aid in the hostage crisis. The Israeli prime minister's office declined to comment.

Speaking in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also declined to say whether Japan would pay the ransom.

"If true, the act of threat in exchange of people's lives is unforgivable and we feel strong indignation," Suga told journalists. "We will make our utmost effort to win their release as soon as possible."

In August, a Japanese citizen believed to be Yukawa, a private military company operator in his early 40s, was kidnapped in Syria after going there to train with militants, according to a post on a blog kept. Pictures on his Facebook page show him in Iraq and Syria in July. One video on his page showed 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 prefectural assemblyman in Ibaraki, north of Tokyo, told Japanese public television station NKH 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 is a respected Japanese freelance journalist who went to report on Syria's civil war last year and knew of Yukawa.

"I'm in Syria for reporting," Goto wrote in an email to an Associated Press journalist in October. "I hope I can convey the atmosphere from where I am and share it."

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 has 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. Though the militant in the video links it to the Japanese funding efforts to counter the Islamic State group, it comes amid recent losses for the extremists targeted in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition. Its militants also recently released some 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq, fueling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group couldn't support them.

Japan relies on the Middle East for most of the crude oil it needs to run the world's third-largest economy. It also has been working to build wider economic ties in the region, like with Abe's current Mideast tour.

This is Abe's second Mideast hostage crisis since becoming prime minister. Two years ago, al-Qaida-affiliated militants attacked an Algerian natural gas plant and the ensuing four-day hostage crisis killed 29 insurgents and 37 foreigners, including 10 Japanese who were working for a Yokohama-based engineering company, JCG Corp. Seven Japanese survived.


Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.


Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap.


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