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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Japan: Missing journalist kidnapped in Syria freed

Freelance journalist Jumpei Yasuda was kidnapped by former Al Qaeda branch Nusra Front

Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda. Kyodo via Reuters
Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda. Kyodo via Reuters

A Japanese journalist, who was captured by a terrorist group in Syria in 2015, has been released and is now in Turkey, according to Japanese officials.

The man, identified as Jumpei Yasuda, is being protected by Turkish authorities in Antakya near the Turkey Syria border, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a hastily arranged news conference late on Tuesday.

Mr Suga said Japan's government was informed by Qatar of his release and has notified Mr Yasuda's family and sent embassy officials to his location.

The journalist is mentally stable and in good health, Kyodo News agency reported.

Mr Yasuda was kidnapped in June 2015 by what Syria's Al Qaeda branch, known at the time as Nusra Front. The group had reportedly a $10 million ransom for the release.

A war monitoring group said he was most recently being held by a Syrian commander with the Turkistan Islamic Party, comprised primarily of Chinese fighters, in the village of Khirbet El Joz near the Turkish border.

Mr 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 ISIS.

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

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Over the past year several videos showing a man believed to be Mr Yasuda have been released.

In one video aired in July, a bearded man thought then to be the journalist said he was in a harsh environment and needed to be rescued immediately.

Mr Yasuda's family and friends were delighted by the news of his release.

"I'm so happy, that's all I can say," Mr Yasuda's mother, Sachiko, told Japanese public broadcaster NHK. "I just want to praise him for carrying through."

Journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, who had received Mr Yasuda's last message in 2015, said he felt relieved. "I'm sure he now knows a lot of details about terrorist organisations in Syria, and I hope he tells the world about them as much as he can."

Syria is rated as one of the most dangerous places for journalists since the conflict began in 2011, with dozens killed or kidnapped.

Several journalists are still missing and their fates remain unknown.

Those missing include Austin Tice of Houston, Texas, who disappeared in August 2012 while covering the conflict, in which 400,000 people have died. A video released a month later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men, saying "Oh, Jesus". There has been no news of him since.

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

Another is British photojournalist John Cantlie, who appeared in ISIS 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. ISIS beheaded Foley in August 2014.

Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab, who worked for Sky News, was kidnapped on October 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 a group linked to Al Qaeda.