GAZA CITY (AFP) – BBC journalist Alan Johnston marks two months in Gaza captivity on Saturday amid concerns for his wellbeing after extremists claimed his abduction and demanded Britain free Muslim prisoners.
Johnston, a Scotsman who has been the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip for three years and was the only full-time Western reporter left there, was forced out of his car at gunpoint as he drove home on March 12 in Gaza City.
But despite diplomatic efforts by Britain, numerous protests in multiple countries and regular appeals for his release from officials, the 44-year-old seasoned reporter has not been seen in public since his disappearance.
He has now been held more than four times longer than any other Westerner in the increasingly dangerous, radicalised and impoverished Gaza Strip.
Palestinian authorities have spoken of contact with his kidnappers and say they know his whereabouts, but have decided not carry out a rescue operation so as not to risk his safety.
“We condemn this kidnapping. The Palestinian people are against it and it is against the national interest. We are trying everything to free him through our contacts with various parties,” said a spokesman for the Palestinian premier.
“We reaffirm the need for his unconditional release because this is something illegal, immoral and anti-national,” added Ghazi Hamad.
In an audio recording accompanied by a picture of Johnston’s BBC card and photographs of Guantanomo Bay prisoners, the Army of Islam said it snatched Johnston on March 12 in the first claim for the Briton’s disappearance.
The group demanded that Britain release all Muslim prisoners, principally radical Palestinian born cleric Abu Qatada and that “impious governments” also release Muslim prisoners otherwise threatening more kidnappings.
Abu Qatada, once described as Al-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.
The Palestinian journalists’ union has accused the government of not doing enough to secure the release of Johnston, merely the latest in a long line of journalists and foreign aid workers to fall victim to abductions in Gaza.
The Arab League, the British government, the European Union, media personalities and church leaders have all called on Johnston’s kidnappers to release him, but to no avail.
Britain’s consul general in Jerusalem Richard Makepeace has twice met Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya despite an international boycott of his radical Hamas movement to discuss efforts to free Johnston.
While kidnappings are a growing scourge in the Gaza Strip, most abductors have merely sought to lever concessions from local authorities.
But Johnston’s case highlights the growth of Al-Qaeda-style ideology and rising Islamic fundamentalism in the Gaza Strip where Internet cafes have been attacked, a Christian bookshop bombed and a party at a UN-run school attacked.
Solidarity demonstrations have been held for Johnston throughout Britain, in Egypt, Belgium, Lebanon and at the United Nations in New York.
This week he was named journalist of the year at the London Press Awards, having been nominated by the BBC before his disappearance.
Johnston, whose posting in Gaza would have ended in April had previously reported for the BBC from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.