Families plead for lives of IS hostages as swap hopes fade
TOKYO (AP) — A deadline of sunset Thursday for a possible prisoner swap purportedly set by the Islamic State group holding a Japanese journalist and a Jordanian military pilot passed with no sign of whether the two men were still alive.
Japanese officials had no new progress to report Friday after a late night that ended with the Jordanian government saying it would only release an al-Qaida prisoner from death row if it got proof the airman was alive.
“There is nothing I can tell you,” government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters. He reiterated Japan’s “strong trust” in the Jordanians to help save the Japanese hostage, freelance journalist Kenji Goto.
Suga said the government had been in close contact with Goto’s wife, Rinko Jogo, who released a statement overnight pleading for her husband’s life.
“I fear that this is the last chance for my husband, and we now have only a few hours left,” Jogo said in a statement released through the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based organization for freelance journalists.
An audio message purportedly posted online Thursday by the Islamic State group said the pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, would be killed if Sajida al-Rishawi, the al-Qaida prisoner, was not delivered to the Turkish border by sunset on Thursday, Iraq time. There was no mention on whether the pilot or Goto would be traded for the woman.
The authenticity of the recording could not be verified independently by the AP. But the possibility of a swap was raised Wednesday when Jordan said it was willing to trade Sajida al-Rishawi for the pilot.
After sundown in the Middle East, with no news on the fate of either the pilot or Goto, the families’ agonizing wait dragged on.
Goto’s wife said she had avoided public comment until the last minute to try to protect her daughters, an infant and a two-year-old, from media attention.
In the Jordanian capital, Amman, the pilot’s brother Jawdat al-Kaseasbeh, said his family had “no clue” about where the negotiations stood.
“We received no assurances from anyone that he is alive,” al-Kaseasbeh, told The Associated Press. “We are waiting, just waiting.”
On Thursday afternoon, Jordan’s government spokesman, Mohammed al-Momani, signaled that, in any case, a swap was on hold because the hostage-takers had not delivered proof the pilot is still alive.
Al-Rishawi, 44, faces death by hanging for her role in a suicide bombing, one of three simultaneous attacks on Amman hotels in November 2005 that killed 60 people. She survived because her belt of explosives didn’t detonate. She initially confessed, but later recanted, saying she was an unwilling participant.
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.
Jordan has faced tough choices in the hostage drama.
Releasing al-Rishawi, implicated in the worst terror attack in Jordan, would be at odds with the government’s tough stance on Islamic extremism.
However, King Abdullah II is under domestic pressure to bring home the pilot, who was captured in December after his Jordanian F-16 crashed near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. He is the first foreign military pilot to be captured since the U.S. and its allies began airstrikes against the Islamic State more than four months ago.
Jordan’s participation in the U.S.-led airstrikes is unpopular in the kingdom, and the pilot is seen by some as the victim of a war they feel the country shouldn’t be involved in.
Al-Kaseasbeh’s relatives have expressed such views and accused the government of bungling efforts to win his freedom.
“They abandoned Muath, the son of the army!” chanted protesters gathered at a “diwan,” or meeting place, in Amman for tribesmen from Karak, in southern Jordan.
Late Thursday, Goto’s wife Rinko Jogo made her first public appeal for her husband’s life, saying she had not spoken out previously because she was trying to shield their daughters, a newborn and a 2-year-old, from media attention.
She revealed that she exchanged several emails with her husband’s captors, and that in the past 20 hours she received one that appeared to be their final demand.
She urged the Japanese and Jordanian governments to finalize a swap that would free both hostages. “I beg the Jordanian and Japanese governments to understand that the fates of both men are in their hands,” she said.
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 has since apparently shifted to one for the release of al-Rishawi.
The militants have reportedly killed Yukawa, 42, although that has not been confirmed.
Karin Laub reported from Amman, Jordan.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Miki Toda, Kaori Hitomi and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Follow Karin Laub on Twitter at www.twittter.com/karin_laub. Follow Elaine Kurtenbach at www.twitter.com/ekurtenbach.