Jordan proposes prisoner swap, fate of Japanese IS hostage unclear

AMMAN (Reuters) – Jordan said on Wednesday it had received no assurance that one of its pilots captured by Islamic State insurgents was safe and that it would go ahead with a proposed prisoner swap only if he was freed.

The fate of air force pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh was thought to be tied to that of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, a veteran war reporter who is also being held by the insurgent group.

A video was released on Tuesday purporting to show the Japanese national saying he had 24 hours to live unless Jordan released Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman on death row for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack.

Government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Jordan was ready to release al-Rishawi if Kasaesbeh was spared, but made clear that she was still being held until the pilot was freed.

« It’s not true she has been released. Her release is tied to freeing our pilot, » Momani told Reuters. He made no mention of Goto.

Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said on his official Twitter account that a Jordanian request for proof that Kasaesbeh was safe and well had gone unanswered.

Kasaesbeh was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against Islamic State, which has captured large tracts of Syria and Iraq.

The voice on the video said Kasaesbeh had a shorter time to live than Goto. Japan confirmed the existence of the video at 11 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday.

« Twenty-four hours have passed since we confirmed the image of Mr. Goto, but there hasn’t been any information of any particular big movement, » Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

He said Japan would continue to do its best to secure his release, staying in contact with Jordan.

Momani said Jordan’s priority was to secure the release of the pilot, who hails from an important Jordanian tribe that forms the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy.

Several hundred people, including Kasaesbeh’s relatives, gathered in front of the office of Jordan’s prime minister on Tuesday, urging authorities to meet Islamic State’s demands.

Al-Rishawi has been held in Jordan over her role in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people in the capital Amman.


A spokesman at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office said he had no immediate comment on the Jordanian statement.

The hostage-taking presents Abe with his biggest diplomatic crisis since he took power in 2012, and there has been a flurry of unconfirmed reports in Japanese media that a swap deal involving Goto might be in the works.

Goto’s mother, speaking shortly after the presumed deadline had passed late on Wednesday, said: « My emotions are all over the place.

« A time limit has been set, and that has made me nervous, » Junko Ishido told reporters at her Tokyo home.

She had earlier urged the Japanese government to do its utmost to save his life and reiterated that her son was not an enemy of Islam.

Abe said Tuesday’s video was « despicable ». He called on Jordan to cooperate in working for Goto’s quick release, but promised that Tokyo would not give in to terrorism.

Goto went to Syria in late October. According to friends and business associates, he was attempting to secure the release of Haruna Yukawa, his friend and fellow Japanese citizen who was captured by Islamic State in August.

In the first of three videos purportedly of Goto, released last week, a black-clad masked figure with a knife said Goto and Yukawa would be killed within 72 hours if Japan did not pay Islamic State $200 million.

The captor resembled a figure from previous Islamic State videos whose threats have preceded beheadings.

A video on Saturday appeared to show Goto with a picture of a decapitated Yukawa, saying his captors’ demands had switched to the release of al-Rishawi.

Tuesday’s video featured an audio track over a still picture that appeared to show Goto holding a picture of a now bearded Kasaesbeh.

Officials involved in the crisis say Tokyo knew for months that Islamic State militants were holding two Japanese men captive, but appeared ill-prepared when the group set a ransom deadline and purportedly killed one of them. [ID:nL1N0V607E]

(Additional reporting by Teppei Kasai, Elaine Lies, Takashi Umekawa, Kevin Krolicki, Nobuhiro Kubo, William Mallard and Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo, Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Ali Abdelatty and Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Writing by Mike Collett-White, Linda Sieg and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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