TOKYO: The fate of two hostages, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and Jordanian air force pilot Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, remained unclear on late Friday as a proposed swap between Jordan and the Islamic State group foundered on the suspicion that one of the captives might not in fact be alive.
On Thursday night, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Jordan would not proceed with the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, a failed suicide bomber jailed in Jordan, because the extremists had not provided proof that al-Kaseasbeh remains alive.
“We need a proof of life, so we cannot proceed with what we have announced yesterday regarding the exchange between Sajida and the Jordanian pilot,” al-Momani told reporters late on Thursday night.
Amman has spoken mostly about the need to free al-Kaseasbeh, but has indicated that it has demanded the simultaneous release of Goto, too.
No new developments had been reported as of Friday evening, even though more than a day had passed since the extremists’ latest deadline.
Their response to the busted deadline was unknown, but they have in the past threatened to kill both Goto and the pilot.
“We have nothing particularly to report” to media outlets about developments of the hostage crisis, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Friday morning.
Asked if negotiations between Jordan and the Islamic State group had broken down, a high-ranking Japanese official in Tokyo said: “We don’t know yet. [The demands] of the group frequently change.”
On January 20, the group first posted an Internet video of Goto and fellow hostage Haruna Yukawa, demanding that Japan pay $200 million in ransom.
Late Saturday night, the group posted an image of Goto holding a photo of what appeared to be the beheaded body of Yukawa. In the accompanying audio recording, the group dropped its ransom demand and instead called for a swap of Goto for al-Rishawi. In another video, posted pm Tuesday, the group threatened to kill both within 24 hours unless al-Rishawi is released.
On Thursday morning, the group declared a one-day deadline of sunset in Mosul, Iraq, which fell at 5:30 p.m. locally and 11:30 p.m. in Japan. This was the moment at which it would execute the pilot and Goto if al-Rishawi was not presented for a swap, it said.
Both Jordan and the jihad group remained silent as of Friday evening.
During a morning news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on whether Japan agreed with Jordan’s policy of withholding al-Rishawi pending evidence that the pilot is alive.
“That’s Jordan’s way of thinking. We, the Japanese government, should not make any comment on that,” Suga said, apparently trying to avoid putting pressure on Amman, at least in public.
Experts say the main aim of the Islamic extremists probably has shifted to damaging the Jordanian government rather than Japan, as Amman is a close ally of the United States and is part of the US-led coalition staging air strikes against the Islamic State group.
“Jordan’s domestic politics are unstable,” said lawmaker Motohiro Ono, a noted Middle East expert from the Democratic Party of Japan.
He added, the nation’s economy is in trouble. It hosts large numbers of refugees from Syria, who now comprise about 10 percent of the country’s population, he said. This has had an impact on the jobs market, as native Jordanians face increased competition for work.
Amman is under great public pressure not to make any false steps in the hostage crisis, Ono said. At the same time, it cannot ignore Tokyo’s demands, given that Japan has extended considerable economic assistance, he added.
Jordan is “in a dilemma,” Ono said.
Fumikazu Nishitani, a freelance journalist familiar with Middle East, said the Islamic State is probably trying to demonstrate its power and shore up weakening morale.
“There seems to be some internal strife within the Islamic State. They need to tighten morale,” Nishitani said.
“By causing a big disturbance and drawing global media attention, they want to send out a message that it is the Islamic State, not al-Qaida, that is fighting against the United States now. In that sense, their aim has already been met to some extent,” Nishitani said.
Meanwhile on Thursday the United States appeared to stop calling publicly on Jordan and Japan not to meet the terrorists’ demands.
Earlier, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki had said the US opposed any prisoner swap deal with the Islamic State group. This position appeared to shift in her latest briefing.
“This is a very sensitive situation. These are ongoing efforts. There are lives at stake here,” said Psaki during a daily press briefing on Thursday in Washington.
“So we’re just not going to speculate or speak to our views while this is ongoing,” she said.
Ono, also a visiting research fellow at the Middle East Institute of Japan, said the United States would likely help the Jordanian government if the government in Amman was confronted with the prospect of being overthrown.