Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday called for the immediate release of two Japanese hostages being held by Islamic State extremists seeking a $200-million ransom.
“I strongly demand that they not be harmed and that they be immediately released,” Abe, speaking through a translator, told journalists in Jerusalem, where he was wrapping up a regional tour. “We will make all possible efforts to release our citizens as quickly as possible.”
The prime minister said he was immediately dispatching his deputy to Tokyo. Japanese officials were reportedly consulting with other countries' intelligence agencies.
“The international community will not capitulate to terror,” Abe said.
Japanese authorities in Tokyo said they were looking into the authenticity of the video, which was distributed on militant websites.
It appears to be the first time that Japanese hostages have been publicly threatened by the Islamic State group, an Al Qaeda breakaway faction previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
In the images posted on the Internet, a militant threatens to execute the two Japanese citizens unless Tokyo pays the ransom. The militant speaks with a British accent and resembles an extremist featured prominently in previous hostage videos and dubbed “Jihadi John” by the British media.
Islamic State extremists have beheaded at least five Western hostages, including two U.S. journalists, an American aid worker and two British citizens. Videos of the Western captives with threats to kill them preceded the earlier executions.
But other European hostages held by Islamic State in Syria have been freed after ransoms were paid. In his comments on Tuesday, the Japanese prime minister did not directly rule out paying a ransom. U.S. and British authorities say they will not negotiate with "terrorists."
The images posted on militant websites shows two men in orange jumpsuits identified as Japanese citizens Kenji Goto, a freelance journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, described in media accounts as an adventurer and self-styled security consultant.
A black-clad, masked man speaking English and baring a knife gives the Japanese public 72 hours “to save the lives of your citizens,” according to a transcript issued by the SITE organization, which monitors jihadi websites.
“Otherwise this knife will become your nightmare,” says the black-clad figure, standing between the two hostages.
The ransom demand, the militant says, is to make up for the $200 million in non-military aid that Tokyo has pledged for nations affected by Islamic State expansion in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
On Tuesday in Jerusalem, Abe said the money was meant to help refugees and others forced to flee their homes because of the conflict raging in the two nations. Military advances by Islamic State have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria.
The Japanese prime minister vowed that the $200 million in aid would be provided despite the Islamic State threats.
The two Japanese men reportedly knew each other before they were taken prisoner in separate incidents. Last August, a video surfaced online that appeared to show Yukawa being interrogated roughly by his captors, apparently in Syria.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem. Staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing and special correspondent Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo contributed to this report.