BBC journalist’s kidnappers add new demand

/ Source: The Associated Press

A shadowy Palestinian group on Tuesday threatened to kill a British journalist it kidnapped months ago and added freedom for an al-Qaida-linked prisoner to its list of demands for his release.

In a statement e-mailed to reporters, the Army of Islam said British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston will be “slaughtered like a sheep” if its demands are not met.

The message demanded that Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi be released from the prison where he is being held in Jordan. Al-Maqdisi is known as the spiritual mentor of former al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike last year.

Earlier, the group demanded freedom for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi sentenced to death in Jordan for her role in the al-Qaida-led triple hotel bombing that killed 60 people in the Jordanian capital in 2005. Al-Rishawi, 35, was intended to be one of the suicide bombers.

In its message, the Palestinian group also said the militant Islamic group Hamas had arrested two of its members, calling it a “declaration of war.” The group threatened to target Hamas leaders if attacked.

In response, Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said: “We reject the continued captivity of Alan and we are still working to release him at the soonest possible opportunity.”

‘Watching them closely’
The British Foreign Office said it was aware of the Army of Islam statement.

“We have made it clear that it’s our top priority to see Alan Johnston released,” a Foreign Office spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. “We condemn statements like this, which only cause further distress for his friends and family.”

The BBC said in a statement, “We are aware of the reports, and are watching them closely.”

Johnston was abducted from a Gaza street on March 12. His kidnapping has been condemned by governments, human rights groups, journalists’ associations and Palestinian leaders.

On Monday, the Army of Islam posted a video message from Johnston on a militant Web site. “I have been dressed in what is an explosive belt, which the kidnappers say will be detonated if there is an attempt to storm the area,” he said in the recording. “They say they are ready to turn the hide-out into what they describe as a death zone if there is an attempt to free me by force.”

'Most concerned and distressed'
The British Foreign Office condemned the release of the video, while Johnston’s father, Graham Johnston, said his family was “most concerned and distressed at this latest development” and pleaded for him to be freed unharmed.

Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip this month, Hamas leaders have been saying that Johnston’s release was imminent. Hamas officials have indicated they know where he is, but have not moved in for fear of harming him.

Johnston had reported from Gaza since 2005 and was the only foreign journalist to remain based there after Palestinian infighting erupted last year. There has been a series of kidnappings of foreign journalists in Gaza in the past two years, but Johnston’s captivity has been the longest.