Reuters – Japan said on Friday it was still trying to secure the release of two Japanese hostages held by Islamic State militants after a deadline to pay ransom for their release passed.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the situation remained "severe" while the mother of one of the hostages, a journalist, appealed for his safe release.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said saving the men's lives is paramount but that Japan will not bow to terrorism.
In an online video released on Tuesday, a black-clad figure holding a knife stood between journalist Kenji Goto and troubled loner Haruna Yukawa, threatening to kill them if Tokyo did not pay Islamic State $200 million within 72 hours.
The Japanese government considers the deadline to be 2:50 p.m. local time (0550 GMT) on Friday. The deadline passed with no word on the fate of the hostages.
"My son Kenji is not an enemy of the people of the Islamic faith. I can only pray as a mother for his release," Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, told a packed news conference, choking back tears. "If I could offer my life I would plead that my son be released, it would be a small sacrifice on my part.
"He only went to rescue his friend. He has always looked out for weaker people, he was always helping weaker children than him," she added.
Abe has ordered his government to make every effort to secure their safe release, setting off a flurry of activity among Japanese diplomats.The captor in the video, which resembles those showing previous Islamic State captives, says the ransom demand matches the $200 million in aid that Abe pledged to help countries fighting Islamist militants.
Abe made the pledge during a multi-nation visit to the Middle East earlier this week. Islamic State militants have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria, and beheaded several Western captives.
Japan has stressed that its donation is for humanitarian aid, such as helping refugees, and insisted that it will not bow to terrorist threats.
"Despite the fact that the situation is severe, we are continuing to seek cooperation from all countries, tribal leaders and religious representatives who might have contacts with an aim to secure the early release of the two Japanese," Suga said, repeating that Japan would not give in to terrorism.
Japanese officials have declined to say if they would pay any ransom, a move that would put Tokyo at odds with close ally the United States.
Prior to the video's release, Japanese diplomats had told the families of the two captives that the government would not pay ransom, sources familiar with the matter said.
In a sermon at Tokyo's most prominent mosque, the Tokyo Camii and Turkish Culture Center, the imam, Muhammad Rashid Alas, called for the "immediate release of the two Japanese hostages," quoting from the Quran on the need to show mercy.
The Center had earlier posted a statement saying the Islamic State's actions are "totally against Islam and have a serious impact on Muslim communities all over the world and put Muslims in a precarious position".
Abe's handling of the hostage crisis - he must appear firm but not callous - will be a big test for the 60-year-old, but he appears to have few options.
Few Japanese are likely to blame Abe if the two captives are killed, but there could be questions raised over why he singled out countries battling the Islamic State for the aid when it was known the group was holding at least one Japanese national.
"Just when they held hostages and considered what they should do about them, Mr. Abe offered something that would, in their (IS's) logic, raise the hurdle (for resolving the situation)," said Motohiro Ono, an opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker who is a Middle East expert.
Yukawa, aged around 42 and who dreamed of becoming a military contractor, was captured in August outside the Syrian city of Aleppo. Goto, 47, a war correspondent with experience in Middle East hot spots, went to Syria in late October to try to help Yukawa.
"He left a very young baby and left his family and I asked his wife why he made this decision and she said he had to do everything in his power to save his friend and acquaintance and that it was very important to him," said Goto's mother, struggling to hold back tears.