NEW YORK — The family of an American held hostage in Saudi Arabia by a group linked to al-Qaida pleaded for his safe return on NBC's "Today" show on Thursday.
“I just want to ask the president of the United States and the Saudi officials to please make this happen,” Paul M. Johnson Jr.'s son said. “Father’s Day is right here. Bring my father home for Father’s Day.”
With the deadline imposed by Johnson's captors looming, his son said he had received no indication that authorities have made any progress in the search for his father, but he said he remained hopeful.
"I think the Saudi government will do whatever it takes for my father's safe return home," a tearful Paul M. Johnson III said. "I really appreciate the Saudi government for what they're doing."
A candlelight vigil for the elder Johnson was planned for 7 p.m. Thursday behind a firehouse in a rural community about 20 miles north of Atlantic City.
“We all hope Paul comes back,” Dan Pomponio, a neighbor of Johnson’s sister in Little Egg Harbor, said Wednesday. “You can only cross your fingers and hope.”
Johnson, 49, moved from New Jersey to Florida in the early 1980s to work for Lockheed Martin, and had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade. At the time of his abduction, he had been working on targeting and night vision systems for Apache helicopters.
Longtime resident of Saudi Arabia
Family members have described Johnson as a longtime resident of Saudi Arabia who respects the country’s culture and traditions.
Meanwhile, a Saudi who identified himself as a friend of Johnson made a separate plea to the militant captors to release the American.
A U.S. Embassy official in the Saudi capital said Thursday that contacts with Saudi authorities were ongoing but would not comment further on the hunt for Johnson.
His kidnappers said in a video and a written statement on an Islamic Web on Tuesday that Saudi authorities would have 72 hours to respond to their demands or Johnson would be killed.
The 72 hours apparently ends sometime Friday; the kidnappers did not specify a time.
Johnson was kidnapped Saturday by a group calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The organization is believed to be headed by Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, chief in Saudi Arabia of the terror network headed by Osama bin Laden and accused in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Al-Qaida portrays the United States as Islam's enemy and denounces the Saudi ruling family for its close ties with America.
Friend pleads with captors
Al-Qaida says it is the defender of Islam. But Saad al-Moameen, who identified himself in a letter posted on Islamic Web sites Wednesday as a friend and colleague of Johnson, accused extremists of violating Islamic ideals.
Al-Moameen said his friendship, in the eyes of a Muslim, bestowed protection on Johnson and other Muslims cannot violate that implicit agreement. If Johnson was harmed, al-Moameen told the kidnappers in his letter, "I will never forgive you. I will curse you in all my prayers ...."
Other pleas on behalf of Johnson have come from his friends and relatives in the United States.
Al-Moameen described himself as Johnson's co-worker but provided no other details on his identity or location. He said Johnson had expressed interest in converting to Islam and opposition to U.S. political policies. Al-Moameen said he had given Johnson translations of the Quran and shared meals with him in his home.
Al-Moameen was quoted as telling Al-Arabiya on the station's Web site that he had chosen to distribute his letter on Web sites known for extremist Muslim comment because he believed the kidnappers monitored such sites.
Thursday, other contributors to such sites ridiculed the letter and called for Johnson's death.
'Prospects are gloomy'
An official in Washington said Wednesday that U.S. and Saudi authorities had teamed to find Johnson.
"We have people and resources on the ground in Saudi Arabia," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "They've been in close touch with their Saudi counterparts on this matter."
He said Saudis "have the lead on this and we work with them."
Also in Washington, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg said he was discouraged after an hour-long meeting with the Saudi government's top foreign policy adviser, Adel al-Jubeir.
"They're at a loss. He says they're using every resource that they have to try to free him," said Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. "Right now the prospects are gloomy."
Search in Riyadh
Security has been increased in and around Riyadh as the hunt for Johnson continued. Late Wednesday, Saudi security forces surrounded a house in a poor southwestern Riyadh neighborhood whose residents are known for extremist Muslim sentiments. The security forces withdrew hours later, witnesses said. It was unclear whether anyone was detained or whether the operation was related to the kidnapping investigation.
Security officials would not comment.
Witnesses said gunfire was heard and that the anti-terrorism force had used loudspeakers to urge those inside the house to surrender. It was not clear whether anyone was in the house. The witnesses said the security forces searched the house and a nearby mosque before withdrawing.
On Tuesday, Saudi forces arrested two suspected militants north of Riyadh.
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