Japan’s prime minister said he was left “speechless” by a video purportedly showing one of two Japanese hostages of the extremist Islamic State group had been killed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared on Japanese public broadcaster NHK early today demanding the militants release the other hostage, 47-year-old journalist Kenji Goto.
He said that the latest video was likely authentic, although he added that the government was still reviewing it.
He offered condolences to the family and friends of Haruna Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer taken hostage in Syria last year.
Mr Abe declined to comment on the message in the video, which demanded a prisoner exchange for Goto. He said only that the government was still working on the situation, and reiterated that Japan condemns terrorism.
“I am left speechless,” he said. “We strongly and totally criticise such acts.”
Yukawa’s father, Shoichi, told reporters he hoped “deep in his heart” that the news of his son’s killing was not true.
“If I am ever reunited with him, I just want to give him a big hug,” he said.
US President Barack Obama condemned what he called “the brutal murder” of Yukawa and offered condolences to Mr Abe after arriving in India. Mr Obama’s statement did not say how the US knew Yukawa was dead.
He said that the United States will stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Japan, and also called for the immediate release of the second hostage.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said US intelligence officials were also working to confirm whether it was authentic.
Criticism of Mr Abe has touched on his push for an expanded role for Japan’s troops – one that has remained strictly confined to self-defence under the pacifist constitution written after the nation’s defeat in World War II.
The threat from the Islamic State group coincided with Mr Abe’s trip to the Middle East, where he announced 200 million dollars in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the militants.
The Islamic State addressed Mr Abe and cited that same figure as ransom demand in its video on Tuesday that threatened to behead Yukawa and Goto within 72 hours.
Mr Abe reiterated his earlier comments that the government of Japan will not succumb to terrorism and will continue to cooperate with the international community in the fight against it.
He spoke by phone with Jordanian King Abdullah II yesterday, Japanese officials said, without elaborating on what they discussed. He also called the two hostages’ families.
Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, was sceptical about the voice on the video claiming to be her son’s.
“I’m petrified,” Ishido told NHK. “He has children. I’m praying he will return soon, and that’s all I want.”
Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the audio was still being studied, but there was no reason to deny the authenticity of the video.
Yukawa was captured last summer, and Goto is thought to have been seized in late October after going to Syria to try to rescue Yukawa.