Syria frees Japanese journalist after three years captivity

Jumpei Yasuda was held hostage for 40 months by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria before finally being released on Oct. 24. His kidnapping underscores a worrying trend of journalists being taken captive in the Middle East. 

Antakya Governorate/AP
In this image released by the Hatay governorate in Turkey, Jumpei Yasuda releases a statement in Antakya, Turkey, on Oct. 24, 2018. Turkey's Foreign Ministry said that 'every effort is being made to ensure that the journalist is returned to his country.'

A Japanese freelance journalist who was freed after more than three years of captivity in Syria said Oct. 24 he is safe in neighboring Turkey.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Japanese Embassy officials met with the journalist, Jumpei Yasuda, at an immigration center in southern Turkey near the border with Syria.

"We are extremely pleased that we have confirmed the safety of Mr. Jumpei Yasuda," Mr. Kono told reporters.

Mr. Yasuda was kidnapped in 2015 by Al Qaeda's branch in Syria, known at the time as the Nusra Front, after contact with him was lost in June that year. A war monitoring group said he was most recently held by a Syrian commander with the Turkistan Islamic Party, which mostly comprises Chinese jihadis in Syria.

"My name is Jumpei Yasuda, Japanese journalist. I have been held in Syria for 40 months," Yasuda said, somewhat haltingly, in English in videotaped comments broadcast by Japan's NHK public television. "Now I am in Turkey. Now I am in safe condition. Thank you very much."

NHK said the video was shot inside the immigration center and was released by the local government in Turkey's Hatay province.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said "Every effort is being made to ensure that the journalist is returned to his country," but would not provide information on the handover.

News of Yasuda's release came late Oct. 23 from Qatar, which helped in obtaining his freedom along with Turkey and other countries in the region, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

Asked if any ransom was paid, Mr. Suga said, "There is no fact that ransom money was paid."

Yasuda's wife, a singer who goes by the name Myu, was on a live talk show on Japanese television and shed tears when she heard Kono confirm that her husband was safe. "First I want to tell him welcome back, and then praise him for enduring," she said. "I'm so glad he survived."

Yasuda's parents earlier said they couldn't wait to see their son return home.

"I was just praying for his safe return," his mother Sachiko Yasuda told Japan's NHK public television as she and her husband stood in front of their home outside Tokyo, holding a "thousand cranes" well-wishing origami ornament that she had added to every day for three years.

Prime Minsiter Shinzo Abe promised the government would help arrange the earliest possible return home for Yasuda. He said Yasuda appeared in good health, an indication he would be fit to travel when his travel documents and other procedures are complete.

Yasuda started reporting on the Middle East in the early 2000s. He was taken hostage in Iraq in 2004 with three other Japanese, but was freed after Islamic clerics negotiated his release.

His last work in Syria involved reporting on his friend Kenji Goto, a Japanese journalist who was taken hostage and killed by the Islamic State group.

Contact was lost with Yasuda after he sent a message to another Japanese freelancer on June 23, 2015. In his last tweet two days earlier, Yasuda said his reporting was often obstructed and that he would stop tweeting his location and activities.

Several videos showing a man believed to be Yasuda have been released in the past year.

In one video released in July, a bearded man thought to be Yasuda said he was in a harsh environment and needed to be rescued immediately.

Syria has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists since the conflict there began in March 2011, with dozens killed or kidnapped.

Several journalists are still missing in Syria and their fates are unknown.

Those missing include Austin Tice of Houston, Texas, who disappeared in August 2012 while covering the conflict, which has killed some 400,000 people. A video released a month later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men, saying "Oh, Jesus." He has not been heard from since.

Mr. Tice is a former Marine who has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers, CBS, and other outlets, and disappeared shortly after his 31st birthday.

Another is British photojournalist John Cantlie, who appeared in Islamic State group propaganda videos. Mr. Cantlie has worked for several publications, including The Sunday Times, The Sun, and The Sunday Telegraph. He was kidnapped with American journalist James Foley in November 2012. The IS beheaded Foley in August 2014.

Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab, who worked for Sky News, was kidnapped on Oct. 14, 2013, along with a colleague from Mauritania, Ishak Moctar, and a Syrian driver while on a trip in northern Syria.

In March 2014, two Spanish journalists – correspondent Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova – were released six months after being kidnapped by an Al Qaeda-linked group.

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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