Palestinian group claims it’s holding Johnston, makes public demands

New York, May 9, 2007—The Palestinian militant group Jaish al-Islam has issued a recording in which it claims to be holding BBC correspondent Alan Johnston and demands the release of Muslim prisoners held by the United Kingdom in exchange for the journalist’s freedom.

The audio and visual recording, published on an extremist Web site and sent to the local office of Al-Jazeera, comes 59 days after Johnston was seized in Gaza City. The group demanded British authorities “release our prisoners and particularly Sheik Abu Qatada the Palestinian,” in return for Johnston’s release, The Associated Press reported. The authenticity of the tape is yet to be verified.

The Associated Press said the 20-minute recording consists of a slideshow—showing pictures of the Iraq war, Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the cleric Abu Qatada—along with audio that includes Islamic music and the abductor’s demands. The BBC said the recording included readings of Quranic verses. The recording included no images of Johnston, the BBC reported.

The extremist Web site also published a picture of Johnston’s BBC identity card.
Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, is headed by Mumtaz Dughmush and is allegedly one of the groups that seized Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit in June 2006, according to the BBC. The group is not affiliated with al-Qaeda, the BBC reported. Mumtaz Dughmush is a member of the powerful Dughmush armed clan operating in Gaza.

The British government is holding Abu Qatada, a Palestinian Islamic cleric with Jordanian citizenship, on suspicion of having close ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, according to news reports. He is awaiting deportation to Jordan, AP reported.

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.

Johnston was the 15th journalist abducted in the Gaza Strip since 2004. All have been released unharmed. He has been held captive longer than any other journalist previously abducted in Gaza, according to CPJ research. None of those responsible for abducting journalists have been brought to justice.