Hamas pledges to free kidnapped BBC man

GAZA CITY (AFP) — Hamas has pledged in the wake of its bloody seizure of the Gaza Strip to work to free BBC reporter Alan Johnston, snatched by gunmen more than three months ago in the volatile territory.“We have started taking practical steps to release Alan Johnston,” the Islamist movement’s armed wing said in a statement to AFP late Friday, without giving further details.

Sacked Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh echoed the sentiment, saying in an interview that the Islamists’ takeover of Gaza was good news for the British journalist, by far the longest-detained Westerner in the territory.

“From now on there will be one legitimate armed force. We will bring discipline and law to Gaza. It will thus be easier to gain the liberation of the British journalist Alan Johnston. His kidnappers will listen to us more closely,” he said in an interview with France’s Le Figaro newspaper.

Johnston, one of the few Western reporters to be permanently based in Gaza, was seized by gunmen from his car as he drove home from work on March 12 in Gaza City. He has now been held for 96 days.

The shadowy Army of Islam has claimed to be holding the veteran newsman and has demanded the release of Islamists, particularly Palestinian-born cleric Abu Qatada who is detained in Britain.

Hamas announced it was cutting all ties with the Army of Islam after it claimed the abduction, and Hamas officials including Haniyeh have repeatedly called for Johnston’s release.

On June 1, the Army of Islam released a video of Johnston in which the 45-year-old said he was in good health and being well treated.

“First of all, my captors have treated me very well. They’ve fed me well, there’s been no violence towards me at all and I’m in good health,” said a pale Johnston, wearing a red sweatshirt and seated in front of a black backdrop.

There was no indication as to when or where the Internet video was made, but Johnston at one point referred to “here in Gaza” and its release sparked a new flurry of international calls for his freedom.

The prize-winning journalist, who has marked his 45th birthday in captivity, spoke of Palestinian suffering as well as the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, but a message to his family was cut. “In three years here in the Palestinian territories, I witnessed the huge suffering of the Palestinian people and my message is that this suffering is continuing and it is unacceptable,” said Johnston. Johnston’s plight has sparked solidarity rallies and messages of support from all over the world and an online petition calling for his release has been signed by more than 130,000 people.

Abu Qatada, once described by a Spanish judge as A Qaeda’s “spiritual head” in Europe, was arrested in Britain in August 2005 as part of a crackdown on Islamist extremism after 56 people were killed in London suicide bombings.

Johnston was just weeks away from finishing his post as the BBC’s Gaza correspondent when he was abducted.

He joined the BBC in January 1991 as a sub-editor in the BBC World Service newsroom before becoming the corporation’s Tashkent correspondent from 1993 to 1995.

He also served as the BBC’s Kabul correspondent from 1997 to 1998 when the Taleban were in power.

He returned to London and the BBC World Service to be a programme editor of The World Today and then a general reporter in the BBC World Service newsroom.

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