The Islamic State group released a message late Wednesday purportedly extending the deadline for Jordan’s release of an Iraqi would-be hotel bomber linked to al-Qaida.
The message, read by a voice claiming to be Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, was released online after Jordan offered a precedent-setting prisoner swap to the Islamic State group, desperately seeking to save a Jordanian air force pilot the militants purportedly threatened to kill, along with Goto.
The recording, in English, says the Jordanians must present Sajida al-Rishawi at the Turkish border by sunset Thursday, or Jordanian pilot Mu’as al-Kasaseabeh will be killed.
The Associated Press could not independently verify the contents of the recording which was distributed on Twitter by IS-affiliated accounts.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the government was analyzing the latest message. He said Japan was doing its utmost for the release of Goto, working with nations in the region, including Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
”We are trying to confirm (the message), but we think there is a high probability that this is Mr. Goto’s voice,” he said.
Suga refused comment on the specifics of the talks with Jordan, saying the situation was developing. The Cabinet was meeting to assess the latest developments.
In comments in Parliament, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his condemnation of the IS hostage-taking. ”This heinous terrorist act is totally unforgivable,” he said.
Releasing the would-be hotel bomber linked to al-Qaida would breach Jordan’s usual hard-line approach to the extremists, setting a precedent for negotiating with them.
The Islamic State group has not publicly demanded prisoner releases before and Jordan’s main ally, the United States, opposes negotiations with extremists.
But King Abdullah II faces growing domestic pressure to bring the pilot home. The pilot’s father said he met on Wednesday with Jordan’s king who he said assured him that ”everything will be fine.”
Efforts to free al-Kaseasbeh and Goto gained urgency after a purported online ultimatum claimed Tuesday that the Islamic State group would kill both hostages within 24 hours if Jordan did not free al-Rishawi.
The scope of a possible swap and of the Islamic State group’s demands remained unclear.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said Jordan is ready to trade the prisoner, an Iraqi woman convicted of involvement in deadly Amman hotel bombings in 2005, for the pilot. Al-Momani made no mention of Goto.
Al-Rishawi’s release would be a coup for the extremists, who have already overrun large parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq. Jordan is part of a U.S.-led military alliance that has carried out airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq in recent months.
The pilot’s capture has hardened popular opposition to the campaign in Jordan, analysts said
”Public opinion in Jordan is putting huge pressure on the government to negotiate with the Islamic State group,” said Marwan Shehadeh, a scholar with ties to ultra-conservative Islamic groups in Jordan. ”If the government doesn’t make a serious effort to release him, the morale of the entire military will deteriorate and the public will lose trust in the political regime.”
The pilot’s family has criticized the government, and several dozen protesters including his father gathered Wednesday outside King Abdullah’s palace in Amman.
”Listen, Abdullah, the son of Jordan (the pilot) must be returned home,” the protesters chanted.
The pilot’s father, Safi al-Kasaesbeh, was allowed into the palace, along with his wife, to meet Abdullah.
”The king told me that Muath is like my son and God willing everything will be fine,” al-Kasaesbeh said afterward.
Jordan reportedly is holding indirect talks with the militants through religious and tribal leaders in Iraq to secure the release of the hostages.
In his brief statement, al-Momani only said Jordan is willing to swap al-Rishawi for the pilot. He did not say if such an exchange is being arranged. Al-Rishawi was sentenced to death for her involvement in the al-Qaida attack on hotels in Amman that killed 60 people.
In Tokyo, Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido has been appealing to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to keep trying to save Goto.
”Kenji has only a little time left,”
Earlier in response to a ruling party lawmaker’s question in Parliament, Abe reiterated his condemnation of the IS hostage-taking.
”The heinous terrorist act is totally unforgivable,” he said.
The militants reportedly have killed a Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, and the crisis has stunned Japan.
The 26-year-old pilot, al-Kasaseabeh, was seized after his Jordanian F-16 crashed in December near the Islamic State group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. He is the first foreign military pilot the militants have captured since the coalition began its airstrikes in August.
Previous captives may have been freed in exchange for ransom, although the governments involved have refused to confirm any payments were made.
Goto, a freelance journalist, was captured in October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue Yukawa, 42, who was taken hostage last summer.
The Islamic State group broke with al-Qaida’s central leadership in 2013 and has clashed with its Syrian branch, but it reveres the global terror network’s former Iraqi affiliate, which battled U.S. forces and claimed the 2005 Amman attack.