Unknown Palestinian group claims it killed BBC correspondent

New York, April 16, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists remains deeply concerned for the safety of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, abducted in Gaza five weeks ago, following an uncorroborated claim made by a previously unknown Palestinian militant group that they had killed him.

On Sunday morning, the Brigades of Tawhid and Jihad (Brigades of Unity and Holy War) claimed via an e-mail sent to media organizations that they had executed Johnston to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The BBC and the Palestinian Authority said they have not been able to verify the claim. The group said they would shortly issue a video to the media showing Johnston’s killing, but haven’t done so at this time.

“We are deeply concerned about the safety and well being of our colleague Alan Johnston and continue to hope for his release,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We feel for Alan’s family and colleagues who have endured the pain and stress of this ordeal. We also call on the Palestinian authorities to do everything in their power to locate and bring to safety our missing colleague.”

The group appears to borrow its name from deceased Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s first militant group before he joined Al-Qaeda in 2004. It is unknown if they are affiliated.

The BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Sky News aired a joint live broadcast calling for Johnston’s release on Thursday. The special program highlighted Johnston’s reporting in Gaza, the near-daily protests Palestinian journalists have held since his abduction, and the dangers of reporting from the increasingly lawless strip.

Also on Thursday, the BBC organized an “international day of action” in which Palestinian journalists held rallies in Gaza and the West Bank town of Ramallah. BBC Director-General Mark Thompson held a news conference in Ramallah to appeal for Johnston’s release. In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for Johnston’s abductors to “release him unconditionally and immediately.”

Johnston, 44, was seized by four armed men in a white Subaru as he drove near the BBC’s Gaza City office on Al-Wihdah Street around 2 p.m. on March 12, according to CPJ sources in Gaza. Johnston was quickly identified because he threw his business card on the street, according to news reports.

Johnston, who joined the BBC in 1991, has been based in Gaza since April 2004. He was due to return to London at the end of this month.

Johnston, who has been held captive longer than any other journalist abducted in Gaza, is the 15th journalist abducted in the Gaza Strip since 2004, according to CPJ research. CPJ research shows that all of the previously abducted journalists were released unharmed.