Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed outrage and called for the immediate release of a Japanese journalist held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) after a video appeared online claiming the execution of one of two hostages held by the group.
A video and an image were released online on Saturday, a day after the 72-hour deadline passed for a $200m ransom that was demanded by Isis to release the two Japanese hostages.
In the video, a voice claiming to be freelance journalist Kenji Goto said the other hostage Haruna Yukawa, a security company owner who disappeared in Syria last August after appearing in a militant video, had been killed. The voice also said the militants were no longer seeking a ransom but the release of a female prisoner held in Jordan for the safety of Mr Goto.
The video shows an image of gaunt-looking Mr Goto holding the photo of what appears to be Mr Yukawa’s decapitated head and body.
Both Japanese and US government officials said they were trying to verify the authenticity of the recording and the still image. But during a Sunday programme on public broadcaster NHK, Mr Abe said there was “high possibility” that the image was authentic.
SITE Intelligence Group, an organisation that tracks terrorist groups, said the video first appeared on Isis-linked Twitter accounts.
“It’s an outrageous terrorist act and an unforgivable act of violence,” Mr Abe told reporters on Sunday. Mr Abe said Japan will not “give in to terrorism” and called for the release of Mr Goto.
In a statement, US President Barack Obama strongly condemned the “brutal murder” of Mr Yukawa. “We will work together to bring the perpetrators of these murders to justice,” Mr Obama said.
The hostage crisis has put Mr Abe in a difficult spot as he seeks for a more assertive role in global security affairs, a stance which has not been fully supported by the Japanese public. The captivity of the two Japanese men has stirred emotions in Japan, which has not participated in a US-led campaign of air strikes against Isis that began in August.
The $200m ransom was the same figure Mr Abe had pledged in assistance to countries battling the militant group, although Japanese officials have emphasised that it was non-military support mainly in the form of assistance for refugees and displaced persons from Iraq and Syria.
Isis has killed at least five western hostages and still holds John Cantlie, a British photojournalist who has appeared in extremist propaganda videos, and a 26-year-old American woman captured last year in Syria while working for aid groups.
In the recording released on Saturday, the voice claiming to be Mr Goto called for the release of Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, who was the wife of one of the three suicide bombers in the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, that killed around 60 people.
“It is simple. You give them Sajida and I will be released,” the voice said in a three-minute recording, which was addressed to Mr Goto’s wife in English.
Following the release of the video, Junko Ishido, Mr Goto’s mother, told reporters that her son’s English was more fluent and smoother than the recording. “I’m just stunned. I just hope for Kenji’s return,” she said.
Mr Yukawa’s father Shoichi also told reporters on Sunday: “I’m very disappointed. I wish inside my heart that this was not true.”