Isis hostages: On Syria's border, the sun goes down on a desperate waiting game

Still no sign of a hostage exchange at deadline

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The Independent Online

The Akcakale border crossing was busy at sunset today, its gates leading into the territories of Isis-controlled Syria. It was thought that the number of those crossing from Turkey into Syria may be increased by one: a failed suicide bomber called Sajida al-Rishawi.

The self-proclaimed “Islamic State” had set a sunset deadline for the release of al-Rishawi from Jordanian custody in a potential exchange for the life of a pilot shot down over Syria or that of another hostage it held, the veteran Japanese war reporter, Kenji Goto.

To the surprise of many in the West’s coalition fighting against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, Jordan relented and agreed to release Rishawi in return for the safe transfer of its pilot, Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh, on Wednesday.

But the deadline came, and went, without al-Rishawi – jailed for her part in the suicide bombing of a wedding reception in Amman that killed more than 57 people – appearing at the border crossing. Last night there were fears that both hostages may have been murdered by Isis. 

Yesterday, Jordan demanded “proof of life” before releasing al-Rishawi, whose husband died in the al-Qaeda orchestrated attack. On Wednesday, it made no mention of Mr Goto in its negotiations, but yesterday said it was also working to secure his release.

For many Western journalists Akcakale is considered a “no go zone”. Some say it is an Isis-controlled town within Turkey, directly across the border from Tal Abyad in Syria. Dozens of Japanese film crews had descended on Akcakale hoping to see Mr Goto’s release. “I hope the deal is done,” said Yu Kobayashi, 37, of NHK state television. “If there is a swap, we expect it will be in Akcakale,” added Aki Yasou from Kyodo News.

There were unconfirmed reports from activists in Syria last night that senior Isis figures were in Tal Abyad. Furthermore, jihadists were said to have been setting up roadblocks and stopped civilians reaching the town. Around an hour before the deadline, Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani said Rishawi remained in custody.

“We want proof... that the pilot is alive so that we can proceed with what we said yesterday – exchanging the prisoner with our pilot,” Mr Momani told Reuters.

Japan has endured an agonising wait on the sidelines of the hostage crisis with Mr Goto essentially a pawn in a game of brinkmanship between Amman and Isis, which would have scored a major coup in the event Rishawi was freed. 

Japan’s top spokesman Yoshihide Suga said yesterday that his government was using “every available channel” to solve the crisis. But privately officials expressed frustration that they were not in control of events. “The Japan government must be feeling marginalised at not being able to affect developments much,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University. “On the other hand, what were they going to do before Jordan got involved? The fact that Japan has less control might be a good thing.”

Mr Nakano criticised what he called the clumsy diplomatic efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants Japan to play a more muscular role in global security. “Abe wants to be one of the big boys. He hangs around with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, then talks to Obama, Cameron and Abbott. Well, that’s not going to help the hostages. The fact that Jordan is in control means now maybe the hostages stand a better chance.”

Mr Goto’s supporters have hung on every tweet and rumour from the Middle East suggesting he was about to be freed. “We’re getting a lot of confusing information,” said his mother, Junko Ishido. “Nobody can say… what is going to happen. All I can do is hope that negotiations by the governments of Japan and Jordan will help save my son.”

Mr Goto’s wife, Rinko, added in an appeal released by the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based organisation for freelance journalists: “I fear that this is the last chance for my husband and we now have only a few hours left. I beg the Jordanian and Japanese governments to understand that the fates of both men are in their hands.”

Lieutenant Muath al-Kaseasbeh’s family said it had not received any word on his fate since the passing of the militants’ purported deadline, the Associated Press reported. “We received no assurances from anyone that he is alive,” said his brother Jawdat. “We have no clue about where the negotiations stand now. We are waiting, just waiting.”

Political pawns: Diplomatic chess game

Sajida al-Rishawi has been jailed in Jordan over a 2005 bomb attack at a wedding reception in Amman. Her husband succeeded in detonating his explosive vest but her belt failed. 

Kenji Goto is a respected freelance journalist for Japanese media. His last report from the Turkish-Syrian border town of Kobani aired in October. He was taken hostage by Isis shortly after.

Lt Muath al-Kasaesbeh was captured when his plane crashed as he conducted US-led coalition air strikes against the group. In statements printed in Isis’ Dabiq magazine, he says he ejected landed in the Euphrates River, where he was taken captive by Isis fighters.

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