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TOKYO – A Japanese envoy in Jordan expressed hope that both a Japanese hostage and a Jordanian pilot held by Islamic militants will return home "with a smile on their faces," as criticisms mounted Tuesday over the government's handling of the crisis.
Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama was determined, saying he believed there were "firm ties" between Japan and Jordan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assigned Nakayama, a lawmaker, to coordinate efforts in Amman to save two Japanese hostages of the Islamic State group.
"I hope we can all firmly work hard and join hands to cooperate, and for the two countries (Japan and Jordan) to cooperate, in order for us to see the day when the Jordanian pilot and our Japanese national Mr. Goto, can both safely return to their own countries with a smile on their faces," he told reporters late Monday night after another day of crisis talks in the Jordanian capital.
It was the first time a Japanese official mentioned Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Mu'ath al-Kaseasbeh, who has been held by the extremist Islamic State group after crashing in December. It wasn't clear when the pilot possible release had entered the picture.
Freelance journalist Kenji Goto was seized in late October in Syria, apparently while trying to rescue another hostage, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, who was captured by the militants last summer.
Over the weekend, an unverified video emerged online showing a still photo of Goto, 47, holding what appears to be a photo of the body of Yukawa. It included a recording of a voice claiming to be Goto, saying his captors wanted the release of Sajida al-Rashawi, an Iraqi woman sentenced to death in Jordan for involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 60 people.
The message retracted a demand for payment of $200 million in ransom for the two Japanese, made in an earlier online message, and said Yukawa had been killed. It threatened to kill Goto unless al-Rashawi was released.
Japanese officials have indicated they are treating the video released over the weekend as authentic and thus accepting the likelihood that Yukawa, a 42-year-old adventurer captured in Syria last summer, was killed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed Monday for Goto's unconditional release.
"The Japanese hostage Mr. Goto needs to be released unconditionally," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. "That's what we call for and we call for the release of all other people who are being held against their will by extremist groups in the region."
Securing the release of al-Rashawi would be a major propaganda coup for the Islamic State and would allow the group to reaffirm its links to al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Rashawi fled but was captured after her explosive belt failed to detonate in the attack in Jordan. She pleaded not guilty.
Some Japanese are critical of the two men for taking such risks. Some also are criticizing Abe, the prime minister, for pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, saying it may have contributed to the crisis.
As parliamentary debate resumed Tuesday, lawmaker Seiji Maehara of the opposition Democratic Party questioned Abe on how the government has handled the hostages' cases since when Yukawa was seized in August.
He noted Abe's explicit mention of the Islamic State in an announcement of $200 million in humanitarian aid to the nations fighting the extremists — something also mentioned in the videos issued by the militants.
But Abe defended his performance.
"If we fear the risks so much that we succumb to the terrorists' threats, we won't be able to make any humanitarian contributions to countries surrounding the area of conflict," Abe said. "Our country will never bow to terrorists. We will continue our humanitarian support in our own unique way."
Abe has pushed to expand the role for Japan's troops — one that has remained strictly confined to self-defense under the pacifist constitution adopted after the nation's defeat in World War II.
Associated Press writers Omar Akour in Amman and Ken Moritsugu, Kaori Hitomi, Koji Ueda and Emily Wang in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Follow Elaine Kurtenbach on Twitter at twitter.com/ekurtenbach