Cairo - The Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese hostages within 72 hours, demanding a $200m ransom in a video posted online on Tuesday that showed a knife-brandishing masked militant standing over the two kneeling captives.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was travelling in the Middle East, vowed to save the men. But with his military only operating in a self-defence capacity at home, Abe faces a hard choice: openly pay the extremists or ask an ally like the United States to attempt a risky rescue inside Syria.
Tuesday's video, released via militant websites associated with the Islamic State group, mirrored other hostage threats the extremists have made.
In it, the captives, 47-year-old Kenji Goto and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, were shown in orange jumpsuits with a rocky hill in the background, a black-clad militant standing between them. The scene resembles others featuring five hostages previously beheaded by the Islamic State group, which controls a third of Iraq and Syria.
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Speaking in English with a British accent, the militant demanded $200m for the men's release and appeared to link the ransom to a pledge Abe made on Saturday of non-military aid to help the government of Iraq and to assist Syrian refugees who have fled the Islamic State's brutality.
"To the prime minister of Japan ... you willingly have volunteered to take part in this crusade," said the masked man, who looked and sounded like the militant shown in other filmed beheadings.
"And to the Japanese public: Just as your government has made the foolish decision to pay $200m to fight the Islamic State, you now have 72 hours to pressure your government in making a wise decision, by paying the $200m to save the lives of your citizens," he said.
"Otherwise, this knife will become your nightmare.
'Their lives the top priority'
Japanese officials said they would analyse the video to verify its authenticity, though Abe offered no hesitation as he pledged to free the men.
"Their lives are the top priority," the Japanese leader told journalists in Jerusalem as he wrapped up a six-day visit to the Middle East. "Extremism and Islam are completely different things."
Abe and others in his government declined to say whether they would pay a ransom, though Abe dispatched his deputy foreign minister, Yasuhide Nakayama, to Jordan to seek the country's support in resolving the hostage crisis.
Agreeing to the Islamic State group's demands would run contrary to allies like the US and Britain, which have a strict policy of not paying ransoms.
The state department had no immediate comment on whether the US was urging Japan not to pay. Secretary of State John Kerry planned to speak later with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on the hostage crisis, spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
In a statement, she said the US "strongly condemns ISIL's threat to murder Japanese citizens", and called for the immediate release of all hostages. "The United States is fully supportive of Japan in this matter. We stand in solidarity with Japan and are co-ordinating closely," the statement said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for the immediate release of the Japanese hostages and all other captives.
Military action ruled out
Though Abe has said he wants a more-muscular Japanese military, he has ruled out sending troops overseas and Japan's constitution, drafted during the American occupation following World War II, commits the country to pacifism. That would put the onus on partners like the US to attempt any hostage rescue.
In early July, US special forces launched a secret raid into Syria to try to free American hostages held by the Islamic State group, killing several militants, but finding no captives.
The two Japanese hostages said nothing during the video.
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Goto is a respected Japanese freelance journalist who went to report on Syria's civil war last year."I'm in Syria for reporting," Goto wrote in an e-mail to an Associated Press journalist in October, before he was abducted. "I hope I can convey the atmosphere from where I am and share it."
Yukawa, the founder of a private security company, was kidnapped in Syria in August after going there to train with militants, according to a post on a blog he kept.
Nobuo Kimoto, an adviser to Yukawa's company, told Japanese television station NHK that he had worried "something like this could happen sooner or later".
First time ISIS demands cash publicly
Tuesday's video marks the first time the Islamic State group has publicly demanded cash. The extremists requested $132.5m from hostage James Foley's parents and political concessions from Washington, though neither was granted, US authorities say, and Foley was subsequently beheaded. They asked for a similar amount for two other American hostages, authorities have said.
The Islamic State group has suffered recent losses in US-led air strikes, and with global oil prices down, their revenue from selling stolen oil has dropped. The extremists also have made money from extortion and robbing banks during its August offensive in Iraq.
Before the oil price drop, the Islamic State group made as much as $2m a day selling pilfered oil, and used the funds to pacify as many as 8 million people living in its self-declared caliphate, said Greg Ohannessian, an analyst at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"Now with oil dropping by 60%, that is going to be cutting into their income," Ohannessian said. "That is definitely going to have an impact on their capacity to maintain the population."
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The group released about 200 mostly elderly Yazidi hostages in Iraq over the weekend, fuelling speculation by Iraqi officials that the group didn't have the money to care for them.
Besides Foley, the Islamic State group has beheaded American hostage Peter Kassig, Israeli-American Steven Sotloff, and British captives David Haines and Alan Henning.
The group has also shot dead hundreds of captives - mainly Syrian and Iraqi soldiers - and has celebrated its mass killings in graphic videos.
The extremists still hold British photojournalist John Cantlie, who has appeared in other extremist propaganda videos, and a 26-year-old American woman. US officials have asked that the woman not be identified out of fears for her safety.
This is Abe's second Mideast hostage crisis since becoming prime minister. The first came two years ago when al-Qaeda-affiliated militants attacked an Algerian natural gas plant, killing 37 foreigners, including 10 Japanese. Seven Japanese workers survived.
What Abe and others in Japan fear is a replay of 2004, when followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheaded a Japanese backpacker, Shosei Koda, over the country sending troops to Iraq to do humanitarian work.
A video by al-Zarqawi's group, which later became the Islamic State group, showed Koda begging Japan's then-prime minister to save him.