Japan steps ups efforts to free hostages as deadline nears

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas during a press conference on January 20, 2015, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abe demanded in a press conference in Jerusalem before heading to the West Bank that the Islamic State group, which controls swathes of territory in Iraq an Syria, immediately free two Japanese hostages unharmed after the jihadists posted a video threat to kill them unless Tokyo pays a $200 million ransom within 72 hours to compensate for non-military aid that Abe pledged to support the campaign against IS during an ongoing Middle East.

With the 72-hour deadline approaching, the government is stepping up efforts to collect information on two Japanese nationals taken hostage by a group believed to be the Islamic State via diplomatic channels and seek cooperation from Britain, Jordan and other countries to break the impasse.

On Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government has not been able to confirm the safety of hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.

Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama, who heads a local headquarters set up in Amman to deal with the hostage crisis, met with King Abdullah II of Jordan and requested the country's cooperation on Wednesday.

"It's a tough situation, but we will make thorough arrangements to cooperate with Japan," the king was quoted as saying.

Asked about cooperation with Jordan after the meeting, Nakayama told reporters, "I must refrain [from commenting on the subject] as it's sensitive." He is believed to have met with other senior Jordanian government officials.

Jordan, which accepts refugees from Syria, has joined the US-led coalition to fight the Islamic State and has been conducting airstrikes against the Islamic militant group out of concern that the group may enter the country.

In December, a pilot engaged in an airstrike against the Islamic State was taken hostage by the group. The pilot still remains captive.

The government has high expectations for cooperation from Jordan, a nation on the front line of the fight against the Islamic State.

Late Wednesday night, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received a report from Nakayama about the meeting with the king on the telephone in the Prime Minister's Office.

"The government's basic policy is to have [the two Japanese hostages] released as soon as possible," Suga stressed at a press conference on Thursday morning.

"We are transmitting a message calling for the release [of the two] as soon as possible by using all kinds of channels, including representatives of tribes and religions."

Suga also revealed that the government has so far had no contact from the Islamic State.

The Japanese and British governments announced a joint statement in which the two countries agreed to cooperate in the fight against terrorism after holding two-plus-two security talks involving foreign and defence ministers.

During the meeting, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida requested Britain's cooperation in the hostage crisis. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond responded by saying the British government will fully cooperate with Japan.

"Britain has strong historical ties with the Middle East," Kishida said at a press conference after the meeting. "I hope we can share information such as the background of the incident and movements of the group."

At the same press conference, Defence Minister Gen Nakatani revealed remarks British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon made during the two-plus-two meeting.

Britain has never paid ransom in similar hostage incidents in the past and so Fallon apparently suggested that Japan deal with the current hostage case in the same manner.

According to Nakatani, Fallon said it is necessary to think about how the move to be made would affect subsequent moves. He said various problems would arise unless strong action was taken.

In London, Kishida also held telephone talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday evening.

During the talks, Kishida requested cooperation from Tehran, saying, "We hope Iran will offer us support in gathering information and realizing an early release of the Japanese nationals."

In response, Zarif was quoted as saying, "We'll fully cooperate with Japan toward their release as quickly as possible."

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