Japan scrambles to free 2 captives of ISIS

The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough. With time running short, the mother of one of the hostages, journalist Kenji Goto, appealed for an end to hatred and destruction.

Militants threaten to kill Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa if ransom not paid

ISIS hostages

8 years ago
Duration 2:41
The Islamic State's deadline for paying the ransom for two Japanese hostages is approaching

The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough.

With time running short, the mother of one of the hostages, journalist Kenji Goto, appealed for an end to hatred and destruction.

"My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State," Junko Ishido said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo. She said she was astonished to learn from her daughter-in-law that she had a newborn baby, and said the child needs his father. She apologized repeatedly for "all the trouble my son has caused."

The status of efforts to free the two men was unclear, with hours to go before the presumed deadline.

The national broadcaster NHK reported that it had received a message from Islamic State "public relations" saying that a statement would be released sometime soon.

Lacking clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan has been scrambling 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 the Islamic State group offered Thursday to try to negotiate, but it was unclear if the Japanese government was receptive to the idea.

The militants threatened in a video message to kill the hostages within 72 hours unless they receive $200 million. Based on the video's release time, that deadline would expire sometime Friday.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that Japan was trying all possible channels to reach those holding the hostages — Goto, 47, and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa.

Goto's mother said her son went to Syria to try to secure a friend's release, corroborating comments by others who said he was trying to rescue Yukawa, who was taken hostage earlier.

"Ever since before he learned to walk, my son has been kind to all of the children he knew," said Ishida, adding that she was "confused by my sorrow."

"My son felt he had to do everything in his power to try to rescue a friend and acquaintance," she said.

Suga said Japan had not received any message from ISIS since the release of the video. Tokyo lacks strong diplomatic connections in the Middle East, and Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, adding to the difficulty of contacting the group holding the hostages.

'Please wait just a bit longer'

So far, the only initiative made public was an offer by Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law and former professor at Kyoto's Doshisha University, along with journalist Kousuke Tsuneoka. Both are converts to Islam.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has limited options in his effort to secure the release of two Japanese captives who are being held by ISIS. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

Appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Nakata, who is also a former Islamic specialist at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia, read a message in Japanese and Arabic.

"Seventy-two hours is just too short. Please wait just a bit longer, and do not try to take action immediately," he said, addressing the militants. "If there is room to talk, I'm ready to go and negotiate."

Nakata proposed offering $200 million in humanitarian aid to refugees and residents of areas controlled by the Islamic State, through the Red Crescent Society.

"The Red Crescent Society is operating under the Islamic State's control. Why don't we seek Turkey's mediation and give the money for the people affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria? I believe this could be a rational, acceptable option," he said.

A freelance journalist, Tsuneoka was released after being held hostage in Afghanistan in 2010.

Tsuneoka and Nakata visited Syria in September in an unsuccessful attempt to gain Yukawa's release. Goto was seized sometime after late October when he entered the area, reportedly while trying to help Yukawa.

'Desperate situation'

In his last communication with the Islamic State group several months ago, Tsuneoka said they had promised not to kill Yukawa or demand ransom.

"It's a desperate situation," Tsuneoka said. "I don't recall a hostage who survived after appearing on the video."

It is unclear if the two would be allowed to go to Syria, since they have been questioned by Japan's security police on suspicion of trying to help a Japanese college student visit Syria to fight with the Islamic State group.

Tsuneoka said they would contact the militants only with a go-ahead by the Foreign Ministry, and could possibly ask representatives of the Islamic State group to meet with them in Turkey.

Kosuke Tsuneoka, a Japanese freelance journalist, speaks about the two hostages held by ISIS, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Thursday. (Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

Suga refused to comment directly on their offer, though he said Tokyo was "prepared to consider all possible ways to save the two hostages." Japanese officials have also not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom, though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said their lives were the top priority.

Nakata and Tsuneoka said their contact was with the Islamic State group's current spokesman, whom they identified as Omar Ghrabah. But they said police surveillance and harassment had prevented any communication with him since early October.

Abe's options are limited. Japan's military operates only in a self-defence capacity a home so any rescue attempt would require help from an ally like the United States.

Japanese media have reported that Goto's wife received an email in December asking for more than 2 billion yen ($17 million) in ransom, but it did not contain a threaten to kill Goto.

Abe has pledged $200 million in aid for refugees displaced by the fighting in Syria. In its ransom video, the Islamic State group accused Abe of providing money to kill Muslim women and children and destroy homes, a charge the Japanese government rejects.

Abe aims to raise Japan's global profile and shift to more pro-active diplomatic and security roles, but this crisis could make the public more wary of greater involvement in the Middle East and other global crises.

In 2004, militants captured a Japanese backpacker, demanding that Japan pull its troops out of humanitarian projects in southern Iraq. The government refused, and the backpacker was found beheaded.