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Secret talks in Jordan to win release of hostages

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Japanese officials were tightlipped Wednesday as secret talks in Jordan sought to secure the freedom of a Japanese journalist and a Jordanian pilot captured by Islamic State extremists and purportedly threatened with death within 24 hours. The global efforts to free Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh gained greater urgency with the release of the apparent ultimatum from the Islamic State group.

In the message, the extremists say the two hostages will be killed within 24 hours – late Wednesday night Japan time – unless Jordan frees Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in a 2005 terrorist attack on a hotel that killed 60 people. The pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, made a last-ditch appeal for Jordan “to meet the demands” of the Islamic State group.

“All people must know, from the head of the regime to everybody else, that the safety of Mu’ath means the stability of Jordan, and the death of Mu’ath means chaos in Jordan,” he told The Associated Press.

About 200 relatives of the pilot demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office in the Jordanian capital of Amman, chanting anti-government slogans and urging it to meet the captors’ demands.

A member of Jordan’s parliament said the country was in indirect talks with the militants to secure the hostages’ release. Bassam Al-Manasseer, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told Bloomberg News the negotiations are taking place through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq, adding that Jordan and Japan won’t negotiate directly with IS and won’t free al-Rishawi in exchange for Goto only.

Manaseer’s comments were the strongest suggestion yet that authorities in Jordan and Japan may be open to a prisoner exchange, something that would go against the policy of the kingdom’s main ally, the U.S., which opposes negotiating with extremists.

Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama was in Amman to coordinate hostage-release efforts with Jordan, but refused comment on details of the talks early Wednesday.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also did not comment when asked while on his way to a meeting on the crisis. Abe will likely face questions about the crisis in parliament Wednesday. Goto’s mother expressed hope for his release, but also desperation.

“What has my child done wrong?” she said. “There’s no more time.”

The hostage saga involving the two Japanese nationals has stunned Japan and triggered criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over his government’s handling of the crisis. The Islamic State have reportedly beheaded one Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa.

The video matched a message released over the weekend, though neither bore the logo of the Islamic State group’s al-Furqan media arm. The weekend video showed a still photo of Goto holding what appears to be a photo of Yukawa’s body. It retracted a demand for $200 million in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message.

The AP could not independently verify any of the videos. However, several militant websites affiliated with the Islamic State group referenced the latest video and posted links to it Tuesday.

The message holds the Jordanian government responsible for delaying the release of al-Rishawi and says that unless she is freed within 24 hours, the pilot, followed by Goto, will be killed, adding that this would be the group’s last message.

“I have only 24 hours left to live and the pilot has even less,” according to the audio, purportedly from Goto.

It is unclear why the group released only audio from Goto. Messages from other Western hostages held by the group have been read by the captives on camera. After the video’s release late Tuesday, Japanese officials held emergency meetings. Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said he had seen the video, but did not comment on its authenticity.

“In this extremely tough situation, we are continuing as before to request the cooperation of the Jordanian government to work toward the immediate release of Mr. Goto,” Suga said.

Mentioning the Jordanian pilot for the first time, on Monday Nakayama expressed hopes the two hostages would return home “with a smile on their faces.” Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh has been held by after his Jordanian F-16 crashed near the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in December. It wasn’t immediately clear when the pilot’s possible release had entered into the negotiations.

The 26-year-old Jordanian is the first foreign military pilot to fall into the extremists’ hands since an U.S.-led coalition that includes Jordan began its aerial campaign against the Islamic State group in August.
This is the first time that the group has publicly demanded the release of prisoners in exchange for hostages. Previous captives are thought to have been released in exchange for ransom, although governments involved have refused to confirm any payments were made.

Goto, a freelance journalist, was seized in October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue Yukawa, 42, who was captured by the militants last summer. Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa was dead.

Securing the release of al-Rishawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State and would allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq. The mother of another Jordanian prisoner, Ziad al-Karboli, told the AP on Tuesday that her family was told that the Islamic State group also was seeking his release as part of a swap.

It was unclear whether it was related to a possible deal involving the Japanese hostage. Al-Karboli, an aide to a former al-Qaida leader in Iraq, was sentenced to death in 2008 for killing a Jordanian citizen. SAPA

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