Jordan Offers to Free Jihadist in Exchange for Pilot

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Jordan offered Wednesday to free a female jihadist in exchange for a Jordanian pilot held by the Islamic State group, which is threatening to execute the airman and a Japanese journalist.

It came after the parents of the hostages made last-ditch pleas for their lives ahead of a deadline set by IS for the release of the would-be suicide bomber.

"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.

"From the start, the position of Jordan was to ensure the safety of our son, the pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh," it added.

It made no mention of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto.

IS, in a video released Tuesday, threatened to kill Kassasbeh and Goto unless Rishawi is freed within 24 hours.

The Japanese government said earlier it believed the IS deadline would expire at around 1400 GMT Wednesday.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh wrote on Twitter shortly before 1500 GMT that his country was still awaiting confirmation that the pilot was safe.

About an hour earlier he denied that Rishawi had already been freed.

Tokyo has been urgently seeking Jordan's help since an IS video released at the weekend said another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa, had been beheaded. 

Japan has sent Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama to Amman to head an emergency response team.

Rishawi has been on death row since 2006 for her part in triple hotel bombings in Amman that killed 60 people.

Kassasbeh was captured on December 24 after his F-16 jet crashed while on a mission against the jihadists over northern Syria.

Jordanian officials have noted that while the IS video threatened Kassasbeh's life, it only mentioned freeing Goto in exchange for Rishawi.

Jordan is among a number of Arab and Western countries that have joined US-led air raids against IS, which has seized large areas in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

The pilot's father Safi Kassasbeh begged the Jordanian government to save his son "at any price", while Goto's mother urged Tokyo to "please save Kenji's life".

An angry Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had earlier blasted the militants' 24-hour deadline.

"This was an utterly despicable act, and I am appalled," Abe told reporters. 

"The government, in this extremely serious situation, has been asking for the Jordanian government's cooperation towards the early release of Mr Goto, and this policy remains unchanged," he told ministers.

Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, was at Japan's parliament Wednesday in a failed bid to meet with Abe. After being refused an appointment with the premier, 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."

Her anguish was mirrored in Jordan where Kassasbeh's father and several dozen members of the family's Karak tribe held a demonstration outside government headquarters in Amman late Tuesday.

They held his picture and a slogan reading: "We are all Maaz."

"We have only one request, Maaz's return at any price," Safi Kassasbeh was quoted by local media as saying.

After initially setting a $200 million (144 million euro) ransom for Yukawa and Goto's release, IS, which rules swathes of Syria and Iraq with an extreme form of Islam, changed tack and demanded Jordan free Rishawi.

In the latest video, respected war reporter Goto is seen holding a photograph of Kassasbeh, while a voice over, purportedly spoken by the Japanese hostage, warns that Jordan is blocking his release.

However, any suggestion of a swap will likely face resistance from the United States.

Asked about recent developments, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier this week a prisoner exchange was "in the same category" as paying a ransom.

The IS group has previously beheaded two U.S. reporters, an American aid worker and two British aid workers, and committed numerous atrocities including mass executions, but the killing of Yukawa was the first time a Japanese has been targeted.

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