Japan said Friday it was still trying to secure the release of two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after a deadline to pay ransom for their release passed, with no immediate word on their fate and the status of efforts to free the two men unclear.
Earlier Friday, ISIL members posted an online warning that the "countdown has begun" to kill the two hostages, journalist Kenji Goto and former military contractor Haruna Yukawa. The posting showed a clock counting down to zero, along with graphic images of other hostages who have been beheaded by the armed group that has taken over parts of Syria and Iraq.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said that Japan was analyzing ISIL’s latest message, and that there had been no direct contact with the hostage-takers.
"The situation remains severe but we are doing everything we can to win the release of the two Japanese hostages," Suga said. He said Japan is using every channel it can find, including local tribal chiefs, to try to reach the captors.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened his National Security Council to discuss how to handle the crisis, as the mother of one of the captives appealed for her son's rescue.
"Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son's life," said Junko Ishido, the mother of Goto
"My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State," she said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo. ISIL is also known as Islamic State.
Ishido said she was astonished and angered to learn from her daughter-in-law that Goto had left less than two weeks after his child was born, in October, to go to Syria to try to rescue the other hostage, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa.
National broadcaster NHK reported early Friday that it had received a message from ISIL "public relations," saying that a statement would be released soon.
Lacking clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan has scrambled for a way to secure the release of the two men, one a journalist, the other an adventurer fascinated by war. Two Japanese who said they have contacts with a leader in ISIL offered on Thursday to try to negotiate, but it was unclear if the Japanese government was receptive to the idea.
In a video released online Tuesday, a black-clad figure holding a knife stood between Goto and Yukawa, threatening to kill them if Tokyo did not pay ISIL $200 million within 72 hours. The video, identified as being made by ISIL’s Al-Furqan media arm and posted on websites associated with the armed group, mirrored other hostage threats ISIL has made.
"To the prime minister of Japan: Although you are more than 8,500 kilometers (about 5,280 miles) from ISIL, you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," says the knife-brandishing fighter, who resembles and sounds like a British man involved in other recorded beheadings. "You have proudly donated $100 million to kill our women and children, to destroy the homes of the Muslims ... and in an attempt to stop the expansion of ISIL, you have also donated another $100 million to train the [apostates]."
The comments likely refer to money Abe pledged while in Egypt to help Iraq's government and aid Syrian refugees. Abe has vowed to save the men, saying, "Their lives are the top priority.” However, he and other Japanese officials declined to say whether they would make a payment. Their kidnapping has reminded many in Japan of the 2004 beheading of a Japanese backpacker in Iraq over Japan's involvement in the U.S.-led war there.
Abe said he would send Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister, to Jordan to seek the country's support and to resolve the hostage crisis. Abe also said the Israeli government, with which Japan promised Sunday to cooperate on counterterrorism, is sharing information to aid in the hostage crisis. The Israeli prime minister's office declined to comment.
Yukawa, a private military company operator in his early 40s, was kidnapped in Syria in August after going there to train with fighters, according to a post on a blog he 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, told Japanese public television station NHK that he worried "something like this could happen sooner or later … I was afraid that they could use Yukawa as a card."
Goto is an established 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."
ISIL is also holding British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has appeared in other 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.
ISIL has suffered recent losses in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition, and with global oil prices down, its revenue from selling stolen oil has likely dropped as well. The fighters have also made money from extortion, illicit businesses and other criminal activities.
Fighters from the group recently released some 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq, fueling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group did not have the money to care for them.
AL Jazeera and wire services