Isis hostages: Jordan and Japan weigh up prisoner swap as latest deadline passes

Fighting continues in northern Iraq as Islamists fire mortars around Kurdish city of Kirkuk

The governments of Jordan and Japan scrambled for information about the fate of two hostages held by Isis yesterday, as the militants clashed with Kurdish forces in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The latest deadline purportedly set by Isis for a potential prisoner swap, which the group said would secure the release of the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and potentially spare the life of the captive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh, passed on Thursday afternoon. Isis had threatened to kill Lt Kaseasbeh, followed by Mr Goto, unless the failed suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi – who is connected to al-Qaeda – was taken to the Turkish border by sunset, Iraqi time (2.30pm GMT).

The governments of both Japan and Jordan have repeatedly insisted that their citizens be returned – with the Jordanian authorities stating yesterday that they were “working around the clock” to secure the return of Lt Kaseasbeh, who was captured after his jet crashed in northeastern Syria in December during a bombing mission against Isis as part of the US-led coalition against the militants. The pilot’s father, Safi al-Kaseasbeh, told the Associated Press  that he had no word on the fate of his son and had not received any update from Jordanian authorities.

 

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country was “making every effort” to free Mr Goto.

“We are gathering and analysing information while asking for cooperation from Jordan and other countries, making every effort to free Kenji Goto,” he told a parliamentary panel. The government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said that Japan has “strong trust” in the Jordanians. “I hope the negotiations materialise,”

Mr Goto’s mother, Junko Ishido, had said late on Thursday, saying that she did not want to think about what she would do if the negotiations for her son – who is said to have travelled to Syria in October – failed.

The Jordanians have said that they would only release Rishawi from death row – where she is being held for her role in a 2005 suicide bomb attack that killed 60 people in the Jordanian capital Amman – if it was give proof Lt Kaseasbeh was still alive, something officials say they are yet to receive. The demand for the release of Rishawi was a modification from an initial video from Isis which asked for $200 million (£133 million) for the release of Mr Goto and another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, who is believed to have been killed by Isis last week.

The anxious wait for the families of the two men came as Isis clashed with Kurdish forces outside of the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq in the latest incident of the months-long conflict that has raged since Isis took control of large areas of the country last summer.

Police said that the militants had launched mortar attacks in a number of districts in the Kurdish-controlled area – while peshmerga fighters had reportedly repelled attacks at a number of points. A number of peshmerga fighters were killed – including a senior commander General Brigadier Sherko Fatih, according to Hemin Hawrami, a Kurdish official.

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Shinzo Abe said Japan were 'making every effort' to free Mr Goto (Getty)

Isis militants also detonated a car bomb at a hotel in the centre of Kirkuk and clashed with peshmerga forces, while there were reports that a number of peshmerga fighters had been killed by a suicide bomb near the eastern town of Jalawla, about 100 miles south of Kirkuk.

The UN assistance mission in Iraq said it was evacuating its foreign staff from Kirkuk to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, due to “a rapid deterioration in security in Kirkuk.”

Kurdish forces have been at the forefront of the fight against Isis, backed by airstrikes by the US-led coalition. These strikes continued yesterday in both Iraq and Syria, including at Tal Afar, north of Kirkuk. At a news conference yesterday, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he believed airstrikes alone will not be enough to defeat Isis militants and greater Western help in building up Iraqi security forces could also play a role

Meanwhile Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi cut short a visit to Ethiopia for an African Union summit following a number of attacks in the Sinai Peninsula on Thursday that killed more than two dozen soldiers and police officers. The attacks were said to have been claimed by the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group, who have pledged allegiance to Isis.

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