TOKYO (AP) – Lacking strong clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan scrambled Thursday for ways to secure the release of two hostages held by the Islamic State group, as two people with contacts there offered to try to negotiate.
The militants threatened in a video message to kill the hostages within 72 hours unless they receive $200 million. Based on the video’s release time, that deadline would expire sometime Friday.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that Japan was trying all possible ways to reach those holding the hostages – 47-year-old freelance journalist Kenji Goto, and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, the founder of a private security company.
Japan had not received any message from IS since the release of the video, he said.
The crisis is a test of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to expand Japan’s role in international affairs and raise the profile of its military. Tokyo lacks strong diplomatic connections in the Middle East, and Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, adding to the difficulty of contacting the group holding the hostages.
So far, the only initiative made public was an offer by Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law and former professor at Kyoto’s Doshisha University.
Appearing at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Nakata, who is also a former Islamic specialist at the Japanese Embassy in Saudi Arabia, read a message in Japanese and Arabic.
“Seventy-two hours is just too short. Please wait just a bit longer, and do not try to take action immediately,” he said, addressing the militants. “If there is room to talk, I’m ready to go and negotiate.”
Nakata urged the Islamic State to “explain the group’s plan to the Japanese government, and wait for a counter proposal from our side”. He also proposed offering $200 million in humanitarian aid to refugees and residents of areas controlled by the Islamic State, through the Red Crescent Society.
“The Red Crescent Society is operating under the Islamic State’s control. Why don’t we seek Turkey’s mediation and give the money for the people affected by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria? I believe this could be a rational, acceptable option,” he said.