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Jordan demanding proof pilot is still alive before handing over female jihadist

The bargaining is taking place in public between Jordan and ISIS.

The sister, right, and wife, left, of Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who is held by the Islamic State group militants.
The sister, right, and wife, left, of Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who is held by the Islamic State group militants.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

- updated 18.30

JORDAN HAS TODAY demanded proof that a pilot threatened with execution by the Islamic State group was alive, as a deadline set by the jihadists to free a female militant expired.

IS had vowed to kill airman Maaz al-Kassasbeh unless Iraqi jihadist Sajida al-Rishawi was handed over at the Turkish border in return for captured Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

The extremist group had set a deadline of sunset this evening for the exchange, but there was no news of the hostages after night fell over parts of Iraq and Syria where IS is based.

Jordan said it was still waiting for evidence that the airman is alive and well.

“At this point we want to emphasise that we have asked for proof of life from Daesh (IS) and we have not received anything yet,” Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said.

“Rishawi is still in Jordan and the exchange will happen once we receive the proof of life that we asked for,” he told reporters.

He made no mention of Goto, whose wife Rinko broke her silence with an emotional appeal to Tokyo and Amman to save her husband.

“My husband is a good and honest man who went to Syria to show the plight of those who suffer,” she said.

“I beg the Jordanian and Japanese governments to understand that the fates of both men are in their hands.”

It has offered to free Rishawi, who was convicted for her part in triple-hotel bombings in the Jordanian capital in 2005 that killed 60 people, if IS releases the pilot.

While IS threatened Kassasbeh’s life, it was not clear from its latest message if the jihadist group was ready to free him as part of an exchange.

At the Turkish border post of Akcakale, which faces the IS-held Syrian town of Tel Abyad, dozens of journalists including some Japanese reporters were waiting for a possible swap.

A Japanese woman working for Tokyo-based Fuji Television was killed in a car accident near the frontier, her employer said.

Waiting for Mercy

Kassasbeh was captured on December 24 after his F-16 jet crashed while on a mission against the jihadists over northern Syria.

“Until now we have not received any indication that (Kassasbeh) is still alive,” the pilot’s father Safi Kassasbeh told AFP as the Thursday deadline passed.

“The government has not told us anything about negotiations and I do not think they are taking the situation seriously. There is nothing we can do. We can only wait for the mercy of God and then Daesh (IS),” he said.

Jordan is under heavy pressure at home and from Japan — a major aid donor — to save Kassasbeh as well as Goto.

Safi Kassasbeh has begged the government to save his son “at any price”.

Japan, which plays no military part in the fight against jihadists, was thrust onto the front line last week when a video appeared in which Goto and Haruna Yukawa, a self-described contractor, were seen kneeling in the desert.

A masked knife-wielding militant said Tokyo had 72 hours to pay a $200 million ransom if it wanted to spare their lives.

When that deadline expired, new pictures appeared to show Yukawa had been beheaded, and a voice identifying itself as Goto demanded the release of Rishawi.

Threat

THIS CAME AFTER Islamic State militants said earlier that they will execute a Jordanian pilot “immediately” if Amman does not hand over a female suicide bomber by sunset today, as Japan waits in anguish for news of a journalist the extremists are also holding.

In a new audio recording, a voice identifying itself as another hostage – Japanese freelancer Kenji Goto – says his captors will kill Maaz al-Kassasbeh if an Iraqi woman on death row in Jordan is not handed over by the end of the day.

“If Sajida al-Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh will be killed immediately,” Goto said, in an unverified audio message distributed by ISIS-linked Twitter accounts.

It was not clear from the message if either Goto or Kassasbeh would be freed.

The recording was reported by monitoring group SITE Intelligence.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told journalists the recording seemed genuine.

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“We are in the process of confirming it, but it is highly probable that the voice is Mr Goto’s,” he said.

Amman had offered to free the Iraqi woman, who was convicted for her part in triple-hotel bombings in the Jordanian capital in 2005 that killed 60 people, if the IS group released their airman.

‘Freed unharmed’

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh wrote on Twitter shortly before 3pm that his country was still awaiting confirmation that the pilot was safe.

Deadline expired

When that deadline expired, new pictures appeared to show Yukawa had been beheaded, and a voice identifying itself as Goto demanded the release of Rishawi.

That twist left Japan pleading with Jordan, whose trump card — talismanic Al-Qaeda operative Rishawi — in the battle to get back its own captured airman had now been compromised.

In their next communication, on Tuesday, the IS group demanded Rishawi be handed over in exchange for Goto within 24 hours or both he and Kassasbeh would be killed.

Japan, a large donor to Jordan, has appealed for Amman’s help, aware that they hold the key to Goto’s safety, but also knowing that intense domestic pressure means the Jordanians must prioritise Kassasbeh.

Japan Islamic State A woman along with others from a religious group holds a placard and chants Free Goto during a rally outside the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo Source: Eugene Hoshiko

The Japanese public has rallied round Goto, a respected war reporter and humanitarian, and though they are largely supportive of Abe’s handling of the crisis thus far, may take a dim view if he does not come home alive.

First published – 07.35

- © AFP, 2015

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