Story highlights

  • ISIL sets sunset deadline for hostage swap
  • Japanese freelancer Kenji Goto read out ISIL demands in audio message
  • ISIL: Jordanian pilot will be killed if female prisoner is not released

More to this story

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group set a deadline for Jordan to release an al-Qaeda-linked female prisoner, saying the group would kill a Jordanian pilot it holds "immediately" if the woman is not freed by sunset on Thursday.

In a new audio recording a voice identifying itself as Japanese freelancer Kenji Goto said his captors would kill pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh if Iraqi death row prisoner Sajida al-Rishawi is not handed over by the end of the day.

"If Sajida al-Rishawi is not ready for exchange for my life at the Turkish border by Thursday sunset, 29th of January, Mosul time, the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh will be killed immediately," Goto said, in an unverified audio message distributed by ISIL-linked Twitter accounts.

It was not clear from the message if either Goto or Kasasbeh would be freed.

The recording was reported by monitoring group SITE Intelligence.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament: "We are aware of the new message ... [and] are verifying [its authenticity]."

The apparent communication breaks an anxious silence from the group since their previous 24-hour deadline for Rishawi expired, around 14:00 GMT Wednesday.

Amman had offered to free the Iraqi woman, who was convicted for her part in the 2005 triple-hotel bombings in the Jordanian capital that killed 60 people, if ISIL released their airman.

"Jordan is ready to release the prisoner Sajida al-Rishawi if the Jordanian pilot is freed unharmed," state television quoted a government spokesman as saying on Wednesday.

"From the start, the position of Jordan was to ensure the safety of our son, the pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh," it added. The government spokesman made no mention of Japanese hostage Goto.

'Save my son'

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh wrote on Twitter shortly before 15:00 GMT that his country was still awaiting confirmation that the pilot was safe.

Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, reporting from Amman said: "We are finding another suggestion from the Jordanian government here which was that al-Rishawi was still in jail and if she is going to go all that way for exchange in one day that is hard to work out according to them."

Wednesday passed in a maelstrom of conflicting reports on the fate of the three key players, complicated by linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, and by the high stakes on all sides.

The atmosphere was tense in Jordan, where the country's involvement in the US-led air raids against ISIL positions is contentious.

"It has caused real difficulties in this country because what was a supportive atmosphere towards the allies against ISIL is now turning against the government," Simmons said.

"ISIL are standing to make possibly more capital in the propaganda stakes out of all of this, realising now that hostages it has have more value alive than dead."

The downing on December 24 of Kasasbeh's F-16 fighter jet over northern Syria and his subsequent capture and humiliation by ISIL exacerbated the situation.

This week the pilot's father begged the government to save his son "at any price".

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, please continue your utmost efforts in negotiating with the Jordanian government until the last minute. There is not much time left.

Junko Ishido, mother of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto 

Japan, which plays no military part in the fight against ISIL, was thrust onto the front line last week when a video appeared in which Goto and Haruna Yukawa, a self-described contractor, were seen kneeling in the desert.

A masked knifeman said Tokyo had 72 hours to pay a $200m ransom if it wanted to spare their lives.

When that deadline expired, new pictures appeared to show Yukawa had been beheaded, and a man identifying himself as Goto demanded the release of Rishawi.

That twist left Japan pleading with Jordan, whose trump card high-value al-Qaeda operative Rishawi in the battle to get back its own captured airman had now been compromised.

In their next communication on Tuesday, ISIL demanded Rishawi be handed over in exchange for Goto within 24 hours or both he and Kasasbeh would be killed.

Japan, a large donor to Jordan, has thrown itself at Amman's mercy, aware that they hold the key to Goto's safety, but also knowing that intense domestic pressure means the Jordanians must prioritise Kasasbeh.

The Japanese public has rallied round Goto, a respected war reporter and humanitarian, and though they are largely supportive of Abe's handling of the crisis thus far, may take a dim view if he does not come home alive.

Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, was at Japan's parliament on Wednesday in a failed bid to meet Abe. After being refused an appointment, she issued a plea for her son's life through assembled media.

"Prime Minister Shinzo Abe," Ishido said. "Please continue your utmost efforts in negotiating with the Jordanian government until the last minute. There is not much time left."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies