The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group (IS) was fast approaching early today with no signs of a breakthrough.
With time running short, the mother of one of the hostages, journalist Kenji Goto, appealed for an end to hatred and destruction.
“My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State,” Junko Ishido said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo.
She said she was astonished to learn from her daughter-in-law that she had a newborn baby, and said the child needs his father. She apologised repeatedly for “all the trouble my son has caused”.
The status of efforts to free the two men was unclear, with hours to go before the presumed deadline.
The national broadcaster NHK reported that it had received a message from IS “public relations” saying that a statement would be released sometime soon.
Lacking clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan has been scrambling for a way to secure the release of the two men, one a journalist, the other an adventurer fascinated by war.
Two Japanese who said they have contacts with an IS leader offered yesterday to try to negotiate, but it was unclear if the Japanese government was receptive to the idea.
The militants threatened in a video message to kill the hostages within 72 hours unless they receive US$200m. Based on the video’s release time, that deadline would expire sometime today.
Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Japan was trying all possible channels to reach those holding the hostages – Mr Goto, 47, and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, the founder of a private security company.
Mr Goto’s mother said her son went to Syria to try to secure a friend’s release, corroborating comments by others who said he was trying to rescue Mr Yukawa, who was taken hostage earlier.
“Ever since before he learned to walk, my son has been kind to all of the children he knew,” said Ms Ishida, adding that she was “confused by my sorrow”.
“My son felt he had to do everything in his power to try to rescue a friend and acquaintance.”
Mr Suga said Japan had not received any message from IS since the release of the video. 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, along with journalist Kousuke Tsuneoka. Both are converts to Islam.
Appearing at the foreign correspondents club of Japan, Mr 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.”
Mr Nakata proposed offering US$200m in humanitarian aid to refugees and residents of areas controlled by IS, 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.
A freelance journalist, Mr Tsuneoka was released after being held hostage in Afghanistan in 2010.
Mr Tsuneoka and Mr Nakata visited Syria in September in an unsuccessful attempt to gain Yukawa’s release. Mr Goto was seized sometime after late October when he entered the area, reportedly while trying to help Mr Yukawa.
In his last communication with IS, several months ago, Mr Tsuneoka said they had promised not to kill Mr Yukawa or demand ransom.
“It’s a desperate situation,” Mr Tsuneoka said. “I don’t recall a hostage who survived after appearing on the video.”
It is unclear if the two would be allowed to go to Syria, since they have been questioned by Japan’s security police on suspicion of trying to help a Japanese college student visit Syria to fight with IS.
Mr Tsuneoka said they would contact the militants only with a go-ahead by the foreign ministry, and could possibly ask IS representatives to meet with them in Turkey.
Mr Suga refused to comment directly on their offer, though he said Tokyo was “prepared to consider all possible ways to save the two hostages”.
Japanese officials have also not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom, though prime minister Shinzo Abe said their lives were the top priority.
Mr Abe’s options are limited. Japan’s military operates only in a self-defence capacity a home so any rescue attempt would require help from an ally like the US.
Mr Abe has pledged $200m in aid for refugees displaced by the fighting in Syria. In its ransom video, the Islamic State group accused him of providing money to kill Muslim women and children and destroy homes, a charge the Japanese government rejects.
In 2004, militants captured a Japanese backpacker, demanding that Japan pull its troops out of humanitarian projects in southern Iraq.
The government refused, and the backpacker was found beheaded.