Islamist militants have finally freed a Japanese journalist held hostage in Syria for over three years, a Japanese government spokesperson announced on Tuesday evening.
Jumpei Yasuda, who was taken hostage by Islamic militants in 2015, was reportedly sent to an immigration center in southern Turkey near the border with Syria.
“While we are currently in the process of identifying him thru Turkish authorities, considering all the various information available we believe with high probability that this might indeed be Jumpei Yasuda, and we have noticed his wife,” Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday evening.
In a video message for Japanese television, Yasuda also confirmed his identity and that he was in a safe condition.
“My name is Jumpei Yasuda, Japanese journalist. I have been held in Syria for 40 months,” he said in English. “Now I am in Turkey. Now I am in a safe condition. Thank you very much.”
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, an arm of al-Qaeda formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), are believed to have held Yasuda. The jihadists had long demanded a $10 million ransom for his release. However, Suga denied that any money was paid out.
“There is no fact that ransom money was paid,” he said.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “every effort is being made to ensure that the journalist is returned to his country,” but refused to provide additional information on the process. According to Turkish media, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe personally called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for Turkey’s efforts to rescue Yasuda.
Yasuda began reporting in the Middle East in the early 2000s. He was first taken hostage in Iraq back in 2004 alongside three other Japanese journalists, but was later freed after officials negotiated his release.
In 2015, Yasuda was kidnapped in Syria while reporting on the case of fellow journalist Kenji Goto, who himself was taken hostage and ultimately killed by Islamic State terrorists. He lost contact with the world on June 23rd but later appeared in occasional photos and videos after being coerced into promoting jihadist propaganda.
“I was just praying for his safe return,” his 75-year-old mother Sachiko Yasuda told Japan’s NHK public television.
In August, Yasuda appeared in a video surrounded by two armed men, where he inexplicably used a different name and claimed to be South Korean.
“My name is Umar. I am South Korean,” he said. “Today’s date is July 25, 2018. I am in a terrible situation. Please help me immediately.”
The kidnapping of journalists and other foreigners is a tactic commonly used among jihadist militants, who often demand huge ransoms and other concessions in return for their release. Victims are often also forced to participate in propaganda videos where they pledge allegiance to the caliphate while denouncing their homelands. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2001, dozens of reporters have been kidnapped and sometimes murdered, some of whom are American citizens.