Purported IS claim: Jordan airstrike kills Arizona woman held hostage

By ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) - Islamic State extremists claimed that an American woman held hostage by the group was killed Friday in a Jordanian airstrike in northern Syria, but the government of Jordan dismissed the statement as "criminal propaganda" and the U.S. said it had not seen any evidence to corroborate the report.

The woman was identified as Kayla Jean Mueller, an American who went to Syria to do aid work, but there was no independent verification of the militants' claim. The statement appeared on a militant website commonly used by the group and was also distributed by Islamic State-affiliated Twitter users.

The 26-year-old Mueller, of Prescott, Arizona, is the only known remaining U.S. hostage held by the Islamic State group.

If the death is confirmed, she would be the fourth American to die while being held by Islamic State militants. Three other Americans - journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig - were beheaded by the group.

Journalist Austin Tice, of Houston, Texas, disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria's civil war. It's not clear what entity is holding him, but it is not believed to be the Islamic State group or the Syrian government, his family has said.

The announcement was the second time this week that extremists announced the death of a hostage. They released a video Tuesday showing Jordanian air force Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, also 26, being burned to death in a cage in gruesome images that caused outrage in Jordan and the rest of the region.

Al-Kaseasbeh, whose F-16 came down in December while conducting airstrikes as part of a campaign against the militants by a U.S.-led coalition, was believed to have been killed in early January.

Friday's statement said Mueller was killed in the militants' stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria during Muslim prayers - which usually take place around midday - in airstrikes that targeted "the same location for more than an hour."

It published photos purportedly of the bombed site, showing a severely damaged three-story building, but offered no proof or images of Mueller.

The statement said no Islamic State militants were killed in the airstrikes, raising further questions about the veracity of the claim.

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said it was investigating.

"But as a first reaction, we think it's illogical and we are highly skeptical about it. How could they identify a Jordanian warplane ... in the sky? What was the American lady doing in a weapons warehouse?" al-Momani said.

"It's part of their criminal propaganda. They have lied that our pilot is alive and tried to negotiate, claiming he is alive while they had killed him weeks before," he added.

American officials said they also were looking into the report.

Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for President Barack Obama's National Security Council, said the White House has "not at this time seen any evidence that corroborates" the claim."

"We are obviously deeply concerned by these reports," she added.

A U.S. official said coalition aircraft did conduct bombing near Raqqa on Friday, but had nothing to confirm the claim that the American captive was killed in the airstrike. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters the U.S. coordinates with the Jordanian air force as they fly airstrikes. He wouldn't say whether the U.S. was aware of the hostage's location.

Mueller had been working in Turkey assisting Syrian refugees, according to a 2013 article in The Daily Courier, her hometown newspaper. She told the paper that she was drawn to help with the situation in Syria.

"For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal," she said. "It's important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are. And from that place, start caring and get a lot done."

According to the newspaper, Mueller had been working with the humanitarian aid agency Support to Life, as well as a local organization that helped female Syrian refugees develop skills.

A 2007 article about Mueller from the same newspaper said she was a student at Northern Arizona University and was active in the Save Darfur Coalition. A statement from the office of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Mueller graduated in 2009 and had worked to help people in need in India, Israel, the Palestinian territories and in Arizona.

On Sunday, Obama said the U.S. was "deploying all the assets that we can" to find Mueller.

"We are in very close contact with the family trying to keep them updated," he said in an interview with NBC's "Today" show. "Obviously this is something that is heart-breaking for the family, and we want to make sure we do anything we can to make sure that any American citizen is rescued from this situation."

Mueller's identity had not been disclosed until now out of fears for her safety.

Jordan has stepped up its attacks against the Islamic State group after the extremists announced they had put al-Kasaesbeh to death.

The Syrian government said Thursday that dozens of Jordanian fighter jets had bombed Islamic State training centers and weapons storage sites. It did not say where the attacks occurred.

The Jordanian military said its warplanes carried out a series of attacks Friday and "destroyed the targets and returned safely." It did not elaborate.

Activists who monitor the Syrian conflict from inside the country said coalition planes hit several targets on the edges and outskirts of Raqqa in quick succession.

A Raqqa-based collective of anti-IS activists known as "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" said the planes targeted multiple IS positions and headquarters in the western and eastern countryside of Raqqa, sending up columns of smoke. Explosions could be heard in the city. The collective said there were no recorded civilian casualties, and did not mention any IS casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of IS members were killed in coalition airstrikes that targeted a tank and vehicle depot in the area of al-Madajen and at least six other IS positions, including a training camp and a prison.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace and National Security writer Robert Burns in Washington, and Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.


Kayla's parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller issued the following statement:
We, Carl and Marsha Mueller, are the parents of Kayla Jean Mueller. She has been held by ISIS in Syria since August 4, 2013.

To those in positions of responsibility for holding Kayla; in adherence to your warnings and out of concern for Kayla's safety, we have been silent until now.

After going to extraordinary efforts to keep Kayla's name out of the media for so long, by securing the cooperation of journalists throughout the world, her name was released today.

This news leaves us concerned, yet, we are still hopeful that Kayla is alive. We have sent you a private message and ask that you respond to us privately. We know that you have read our previous communications, John Cantlie made references to them in October.

You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest, as your guest her safety and wellbeing remains your responsibility.

Kayla's mother and I have been doing everything we can to get her released safely.

At this time we ask you, who are holding Kayla, to contact us privately.


Congressman Ruben Gallego issued the following statement in regards to Kayla Mueller, a young Arizonan held captive by ISIS:

"Kayla Mueller is a young woman from Arizona who has devoted her career to helping people in need and serving others around the world. Over a year ago Kayla was helping refugee families in Syria who were forced to leave their home when she was taken captive by ISIS. While we have no more information about Kayla's situation, our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends."

Kayla Jean Mueller graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in political science.
"The Northern Arizona University family is deeply concerned by the disturbing reports regarding our alumna, Kayla Jean Mueller. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this difficult time."

Rep. Matt Salmon comments on ISIS claims of death of Arizonan Kayla Mueller:
"I am deeply troubled by the reported death of Kayla Mueller, an American citizen and Arizonan who went to Syria to help the hundreds of thousands of victims of the brutal Assad regime.  By all accounts, she was a very generous person. This is indeed a sad day and another example of ISIS brutality.  The death of yet another American at the hands of ISIS is something we mourn as Americans and as Arizonans.

"Describing ISIS as thugs or barbarians cannot convey the fullness of their savagery.  They have proven themselves to be nothing more than the truest definition of evil.  Jordan is responding as the United States should; we stand unequivocally behind them.  I urge my fellow Members of Congress to pursue the fullest military option at our disposal and to forcefully obliterate this enemy from the face of the earth."


Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick released the following statement regarding the 26-year-old Prescott, Ariz., woman held captive by ISIS:
"Kayla Mueller and her family are beloved members of our northern Arizona community. Kayla's selfless dedication to helping others took her to some of the world's most troubled and dangerous regions. But here at home, she's known by many as a dear friend, a devoted volunteer, and a fellow NAU Lumberjack. While we do not have new information on Kayla's situation, our hearts and prayers remain with her family."

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake issued the following statement in response to unconfirmed reports related to Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old Prescott, Ariz. resident and humanitarian aid worker, who has been held hostage by ISIL since 2013:
"The reported events surrounding Kayla Mueller - a Prescott resident - can be laid squarely at the feet of ISIL. She deserves to be remembered for dedicating her life to the service of others. My thoughts, like those of so many across Arizona and around the globe, are with Kayla's family. The best thing Congress can do now is authorize the mission against ISIL to let our allies and our adversaries know that we are united in our resolve."  


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press modified.
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