LONDON (AFP) – The BBC said Wednesday that it was studying the contents of a tape purportedly from the kidnappers of its Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston, who was taken hostage two months ago.
It was handed the tape, which apparently includes certain demands and pictures, including Alan Johnston’s BBC identity card, by the Al-Jazeera news channel.
Johnston was snatched at gunpoint as he drove home from work in Gaza City on March 12. Having spent more than eight weeks in captivity he has become by far the longest-kept Westerner in the unruly territory.
The tape was delivered to Al-Jazeera television in Gaza, and was produced by a group that calls itself Jaish-e-al-Islam, or The Army of Islam.
The BBC’s world affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge said little is known about the group but if the tape is authentic, it could mark a development in Johnston’s capture.
The tape includes a demand to release Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-born Islamic cleric suspected of close links to Al-Qaeda who is being held in Britain as a threat to national security pending extradition to Jordan.
In a statement, the BBC said: “We are aware of the tape released by the Army of Islam concerning our Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston.
“We have no comment on the demands made of the British government in the tape. We remain concerned for Alan’s well-being and call for his immediate release.”
Palestinian authorities said recently that they have had contact with Johnston’s kidnappers and know his whereabouts, but will not carry out a rescue operation so as not to risk his safety.
Johnston, 44, was the only Western journalist left working full-time in the increasingly dangerous Gaza Strip when he was abducted.
He is the latest of around 20 foreign journalists and aid workers to be abducted in Gaza in the past year. All of them have so far been released unharmed, with most used to lever concessions from the Palestinian authorities.
Johnston’s ordeal has sparked international protests, with solidarity demonstrations held in Belgium, Egypt, Lebanon and throughout Britain.
BBC journalists also held a rally at the United Nations in New York last Thursday — World Press Freedom Day — to demand Johnston’s release.