Yomiuri Shimbun / AP

Deadlock in efforts to free ISIL hostage Kenji Goto

Negotiations stalled as Jordan waits for proof of life for pilot held with Japanese journalist

Efforts by Japan and Jordan to secure the release of two of their nationals held captive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remain deadlocked, and the situation remains highly unpredictable, Japanese officials said.

The armed group is holding as hostages Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, and it has threatened to kill both men unless Jordan releases a prisoner who is being held on death row in Amman.

“The situation is deadlocked,” Japan's deputy foreign minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, said in Jordon late on Friday, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in Tokyo on Saturday that the situation was unpredictable, NHK reported.

“Anything could happen,” Kishida said. “We can't predict it at all. While preparing for every situation, I want to make every effort for Mr. Goto's release.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is on standby to receive regular updates on the situation, NHK said.

The deadlock follows the passing of a Thursday deadline set by ISIL for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, who was convicted of involvement in the 2005 bombings of three hotels in the Jordanian capital of Amman in an attack that killed 57 people. On Thursday, Jordan requested proof that its pilot is still alive in order to consider a prisoner exchange, but there has been no communication from ISIL since then.

The proof-of-life request from the Jordanian government followed the release on Wednesday of an audio recording in which a voice identifying itself as Goto conveyed ISIL’s demand for Rishawi's release.

“If Sajida al-Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh will be killed immediately,” Goto said in an unverified audio message distributed by ISIL-linked Twitter accounts. 

Jordan has offered, in principle, to swap Rishawi for the pilot, but ISIL has offered only to release Goto and spare the pilot’s life. ISIL has not yet indicated that it is willing to release Kassasbeh. The Jordanian government has so far made no mention of Goto in its disclosures about the negotiations.

ISIL is also holding British photojournalist John Cantlie and an 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. With global oil prices down sharply, its revenue from oil in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria has likely dropped. 

The group, which holds a wide stretch of territory in Iraq and Syria after months of intense fighting, is also funding its operations through extortion and other criminal activities. ISIL fighters 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

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