Jordan awaits proof hostage is alive after deadline
Tokyo — The fates of a Japanese journalist and Jordanian military pilot were unknown Friday, a day after the latest purported deadline for a possible prisoner swap passed with no further word from the Islamic State group holding them captive.
Jordan has said it will only release an al-Qaida prisoner, Sajida al-Rishawi, from death row if it gets proof the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, is alive and so far has received no such evidence from the hostage-takers.
At the same time, the government is under domestic pressure to win the release of al-Kaseasbeh, the first foreign pilot to be captured by Islamic State militants since a U.S.-led military coalition began carrying out air strikes against IS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria in September. Jordan is part of the coalition.
In the pilot’s home village of Ay in the southern Karak district, several dozen protesters called for his release and chanted against Jordan’s role in the alliance against Islamic State. “The sons of Jordan must not be sacrificed for America,” read a banner.
Former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said that the Jordanian government faces only bad options in the hostage crisis. The pilot was captured in December, after his F-16 fighter plane went down over an IS-controlled area of Syria.
“Jordan does not have a history of negotiating with terrorists,” Muasher told The Associated Press in an interview in Beirut. “At the same time, I think it is clear that all other alternatives are worse than releasing the pilot and ending in that scenario.”
“I think the country is united today in calling for the release of the pilot and that obviously is the priority of the Jordanian government,” he said.
The veteran diplomat said he does not expect King Abdullah II to second-guess Jordan’s role in the U.S.-led coalition because of increasingly vocal protests against such participation following the capture of the pilot.
“The king has made it clear that this is a war of values, not just a military war against ISIS (Islamic State) and that as such, Jordan needs to be involved,” Muasher said. “In fact, Jordan needs to be at the forefront of fighting ISIS.”
Al-Rishawi, 44, faces death by hanging for her role in triple 2005 hotel bombings in the Jordanian capital Amman that killed 60 people, the worst terror attack in Jordan. Her suicide belt did not go off and she fled the scene, but was quickly arrested.
She initially confessed, but later recanted. Al-Rishawi is from the Iraqi city of Ramadi and has close family ties to the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, a precursor of the Islamic State group. Three of her brothers were al-Qaida operatives killed in fighting in Iraq.
Government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani declined comment Friday on a Kuwaiti newspaper report that her execution and the trials of Islamic State-linked detainees in Jordan could be fast-tracked if the pilot is killed by his captors.
Earlier this week, an audio message purportedly posted by Islamic State militants said the pilot would be killed if al-Rishawi was not delivered to the Turkish border by sunset Thursday. The authenticity of the recording could not be verified independently by the AP.
It was not clear from the recording what would happen to a second hostage, Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, if the Iraqi woman was not turned over by the deadline. The deadline passed without word on the fate of the captives.
Officials in Tokyo said they had no progress to report.
“There is nothing I can tell you,” said government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, reiterating Japan’s “strong trust” in the Jordanians to help save Goto.
Suga said the government was in close contact with Goto’s wife, Rinko Jogo, who released a statement late Thursday pleading for her husband’s life.
The pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, said Friday that he had no word on the fate of his son and had not received any update from Jordanian authorities. “I have nothing,” he said, speaking after Muslim noon prayers in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
A spokesman for the family, Said Dalaeen, later said there was word that the pilot is alive, but did not elaborate.
The hostage drama began last week after the Islamic State group released a video showing Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa kneeling in orange jumpsuits beside a masked man who threatened to kill them in 72 hours unless Japan paid a $200 million ransom. That demand later apparently shifted to one for the release of al-Rishawi.
The militants have reportedly killed Yukawa, 42, although that has not been confirmed.
The crisis prompted the Japanese Foreign Ministry to issue a warning Friday to journalists to avoid the border town in Turkey that could be a crossing point from Syria if a prisoner swap goes ahead.
It noted that Islamic State militants were likely aware of who was in the area. “We cannot dismiss the possibility of a kidnapping of Japanese journalists or of other risks to them,” it said.
“Under such circumstances, reporting on Turkish-Syrian border, even on the Turkey side, and of course in Syria, is likely to lead to unanticipated risks and be very dangerous,” the statement said, reiterating earlier warnings. “We strongly urge you to refrain from visiting or staying in the area for reporting, and to leave immediately.”
The warning followed news that a Japanese journalist helping cover a possible prisoner swap at the border died in a car crash near the area Thursday, according to Turkish officials.
Kazumi Takaya, based in Turkey for 22 years, was working as a translator for Fuji TV at the time of the crash, local media reports said.