GAZA, (Reuters) – Kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston said he was in good health and being treated well in a video released on Friday, the first since militants abducted him in the Palestinian enclave over 11 weeks ago.
It was the clearest evidence he was alive following his March 12 abduction, although it was not clear when taping took place for the video, in which the British reporter criticised Israel as well as London’s policy towards the Muslim world. “My captors have treated me very well,” he said on the video posted on an Islamist Web site by a group called the Army of Islam which said last month it had kidnapped him. “They have fed me well. There has been no violence towards me at all and I’m in good health,” said Johnston, wearing a baggy red sweater and sitting before a dark grey background.
The group holding him repeated its demand on the video for Britain to free Muslim prisoners, particularly the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada. Johnston criticised the British military presence alongside the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Scotsman, who turned 45 in captivity last month, is the only Western correspondent based full-time in the Gaza Strip, where a year-old economic embargo and fighting among militants have worsened living conditions for the 1.4 million people crammed into the territory and heightened instability.
None of several foreigners seized in Gaza has been harmed. None has been held so long, with most freed within days.
Saeb Erekat, a top adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the video “proof of life”, decried the kidnappers and urged the government led by the militant group Hamas to act. “Who’s paying them? Who’s sponsoring them? They’re destroying the Palestinian cause. They’re harming us. They’re harming Islam and I believe the government must act,” Erekat, from Hamas’s rival Fatah movement, told the BBC.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called for Johnston’s immediate release: “This is an action that does not serve Islam, does not serve the Palestinian cause, and does not serve those who have abducted him,” he said.
Mohammad al-Madhoun, an aide to Haniyeh, said the tape may show that Johnston was in good condition but was not a sign that a deal to secure his release was near — despite comments to that effect from another senior Hamas figure in Gaza a week ago. “I expect more concentrated negotiations to come,” he said, adding that the kidnappers had already dropped some demands.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, apparently referring to Johnston’s remarks on British and Israeli policy, said: “I don’t think I should really comment on the video as such, made in the circumstances in which it is. But we will carry on doing everything we can and hope that we can secure his release.”
Palestinian officials had often said they believed Johnston was safe and well, although an e-mail in the name of another, unknown group had said in April that he had been killed.
The video, posted on a Web site often used by al Qaeda, begins with a voice reciting a verse from the Koran calling for Muslims to fight foreign “infidels”. “In all this, you can see the British government is endlessly working to occupy Muslim lands against the will of the people in those places,” Johnston said in the video.
The tape was interrupted as he started addressing his family. It was again interrupted as Johnston was about to list the captors’ demands. There followed part of an audio tape from the Army of Islam, issued on May 9, that demanded the release of Abu Qatada and other Muslims in Britain and “infidel” states.
Abu Qatada is described by the British government as a “significant international terrorist” with suspected close links to al Qaeda. He is detained but has not faced trial.