January 30, 2015 / 12:38 AM / 3 years ago

Japan, Jordan seek news on fate of Islamic State captives

A relative of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was captured by Islamic State after his plane crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against them, holds a picture of him at the family's headquarters in the city of Karak January 29, 2015.Ahmad Abdo

AMMAN/TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan and Jordan scrambled on Friday to find out what had happened to two of their nationals being held by Islamic State, after a deadline passed for the release of a would-be suicide bomber being held on death row in Amman.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said every effort was being made to secure the release of journalist Kenji Goto.

"We are gathering and analyzing information while asking for cooperation from Jordan and other countries, making every effort to free Kenji Goto," he told a parliamentary panel.

Jordan's army said state agencies were "working round the clock".

Jordan said on Thursday it was still holding the Iraqi woman prisoner as a deadline passed for her release set by Islamic State militants, who threatened to kill a Jordanian pilot unless she was handed over by sunset.

An audio message purportedly from Goto said the pilot would be killed if Jordan did not free Sajida al-Rishawi, in jail for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack that killed 60 people in the Jordanian capital Amman.

The message extended a previous deadline set on Tuesday in which Goto said he would be killed within 24 hours if al-Rishawi was not freed.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said late on Friday that Tokyo was doing everything it could, but declined to answer whether negotiations had stalled.

"We are doing the things we have to, one after the other, steadily," he told a news conference.

The hostage crisis comes as Islamic State, which has already released videos showing the beheadings of five Western hostages, is coming under increased military pressure from U.S.-led air strikes and by Kurdish and Iraqi troops pushing to reverse the Islamist group's territorial gains in Iraq and Syria.

JORDAN DEMANDS PROOF

About an hour before the new deadline was due to pass on Thursday, government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Jordan was still holding al-Rishawi.

"We want proof ... that the pilot is alive so that we can proceed with what we said yesterday; exchanging the prisoner with our pilot," Momani told Reuters.

The pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh, was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against Islamic State.

"State organs are working round the clock following up on the case of the pilot," Jordanian army spokesman Colonel Mamdouh al Ameri said, but offered no new word on his fate.

Momani said separately that Jordan was coordinating with Japanese authorities in an effort to secure the release of Goto, a veteran war reporter.

Goto's wife urged both governments to work for her husband's release, saying she feared this was his last chance.

In the latest audio recording purportedly of Goto, he said that Kasaesbeh would be killed "immediately" if al-Rishawi was not at the Turkish border by sunset on Thursday, Iraq time, ready to be exchanged for the Japanese hostage.

That was some time around 0930 ET on Thursday.

DIFFICULT POSITION

The implication that the pilot would not be part of an exchange deal has left Jordan in a difficult position.

Protests have erupted in Karak, home town of the pilot, who is from an important Jordanian tribe that forms the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy.

In Japan, the hostage crisis is the biggest diplomatic test for Abe since he took office in 2012 pledging to play a bigger role in global security.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told journalists that Tokyo had asked Jordan to beef up protection of its diplomats in the country on Friday, the birthday of Jordanian King Abdullah.

Jordanian comments have raised concerns in Japan that Goto might not be part of any deal between Amman and Islamic State.

"I hope the negotiations materialize," Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, told reporters at her Tokyo home late on Thursday. "I don't want to think about it," she said, when asked what she would do if negotiations failed.

Abe has repeatedly said Japan would not give in to terrorism and would keep cooperating with the international community.

The hostage crisis erupted after Abe announced in Cairo $200 million in non-military aid for countries opposing Islamic State, but his government has rejected suggestions it acted rashly and stressed the assistance was humanitarian.

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 video 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.

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 Kasaesbeh.

Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Linda Sieg in Tokyo, and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mike Collett-White

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