Japan weighs ransom in Islamic State hostage threat
Cairo — The Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese hostages within 72 hours, demanding a $200 million ransom in a video posted online Tuesday that showed a knife-brandishing masked militant standing over the two kneeling captives.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was traveling in the Middle East, vowed to save the men. But with his military only operating in a self-defense capacity at home, Abe faces a hard choice: openly pay the extremists or ask an ally like the United States to attempt a risky rescue inside Syria.
Tuesday's video, released via militant websites associated with the Islamic State group, mirrored other hostage threats the extremists have made. In it, the captives, 47-year-old Kenji Goto and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, were shown in orange jumpsuits with a rocky hill in the background, a black-clad militant standing between them. The scene resembles others featuring five hostages previously beheaded by the Islamic State group, which controls a third of Iraq and Syria.
Speaking in English with a British accent, the militant demanded $200 million for the men's release and appeared to link the ransom to a pledge Abe made Saturday of nonmilitary aid to help the government of Iraq and to assist Syrian refugees who have fled the Islamic State's brutality.
"To the prime minister of Japan … you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," said the masked man, who looked and sounded like the militant shown in other filmed beheadings.
"And to the Japanese public: Just as your government has made the foolish decision to pay $200 million to fight the Islamic State, you now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision, by paying the $200 million to save the lives of your citizens," he said.
"Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare.
Japanese officials said they would analyze the video to verify its authenticity, though Abe offered no hesitation as he pledged to free the men.
"Their lives are the top priority," the Japanese leader told journalists in Jerusalem as he wrapped up a six-day visit to the Middle East. "Extremism and Islam are completely different things."
Abe and others in his government declined to say whether they would pay a ransom, though Abe dispatched his deputy foreign minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, to Jordan to seek the country's support in resolving the hostage crisis.
Agreeing to the Islamic State group's demands would run contrary to allies like the U.S. and Britain, which have a strict policy of not paying ransoms.
The State Department had no immediate comment on whether the U.S. was urging Japan not to pay. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to speak later with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on the hostage crisis, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
In a statement, she said the U.S. "strongly condemns ISIL's threat to murder Japanese citizens," and called for the immediate release of all hostages. "The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter ..."