International help sought on hostage crisis

International help sought on hostage crisis
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The government is seeking cooperation from the United States and European and Middle Eastern nations to solve a hostage crisis triggered by a group believed to be the radical Islamic State, which has threatened to kill two Japanese hostages unless a $200 million (S$265 million) ransom is paid.

The government identified the Japanese men who appeared in a video posted by the group as Haruna Yukawa, 42, who was captured by the Islamic State in August last year, and Kenji Goto, a 47-year-old journalist.

"We believe they are Mr. Haruna Yukawa and Mr. Kenji Goto after comprehensively taking into account various pieces of information, [including] their identification by their families, who saw the video," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

According to officials, the government has contacted the United States and Britain, citizens of which have been executed by the Islamic State, in an effort to bring the crisis to an early conclusion.

It has also contacted Middle East nations neighbouring Syria, where Yukawa and Goto are believed to have been abducted.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in Israel as part of his Middle East tour, made telephone calls to the leaders of Jordan, Turkey and Egypt between late Tuesday and early Wednesday to seek help in the crisis.

"Japan will not give in to terrorism and will contribute to the fight against terrorism with the international community," Abe was quoted as saying to the leaders.

Jordan's King Abdullah II replied that his country would gather as much information as possible and cooperate in every possible way. The Japanese government has set up a regional headquarters to deal with the crisis in Jordan.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told Abe he would extend every possible support to Japan, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his nation would make efforts to have the hostages released as soon as possible.

Yasuhide Nakayama, state minister for foreign affairs, arrived in Amman before dawn Wednesday to take charge at the regional headquarters.

"Prime Minister Abe instructed me to put human life first," Nakayama told reporters. "We will do our utmost to gather information."

The United States and a number of European nations have said they would take joint steps with Japan, which expressed its resolve to fight terrorism.

In a statement released Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki condemned the threat made by the group and urged it to release the hostages immediately. "We stand in solidarity with Japan and are coordinating closely," the statement said.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who was in Britain, spoke by phone with US Secretary of State John Kerry, during which he expressed thanks for the "full support and solidarity" immediately extended in the statement by the United States.

He also asked Kerry for US cooperation in gathering vital information and having the hostages released as soon as possible.

Kerry pledged full US cooperation and close coordination with Japan.

Ahead of the conversation with Kerry, Kishida called German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to seek their countries' cooperation.

Britain and France have reportedly been successful in having the Islamic State release some of their nationals and are believed to have channels to talk to the group.

At the Wednesday morning press conference, Suga stressed that the $200 million (about ¥23.7 billion) Japan pledged is for humanitarian purposes to improve the lives of people in the Middle East.

He added that the government will try to convey Japan's position to the Islamic State through diplomatic channels and mass media, but admitted there had been no contact from the group.

The video said the two hostages would be killed if the ransom was not paid within the next 72 hours. According to an antigovernment Syrian rebel, the video was seen on the Internet at about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed the existence of the video at 2:50 p.m. on that day.

Suga said Wednesday afternoon that the deadline will be 72 hours after the government detected the video, or around 2:50 p.m., Friday.

'Race against time'

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday afternoon that he had instructed relevant Cabinet ministers to do their "utmost" to realise the release of the two Japanese hostages at a crisis meeting held immediately after his return to Tokyo from his Middle East tour.

"It is a race against time," Abe said sternly, adding that the government will use all possible diplomatic channels to win their release.

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