Captive BBC Reporter Is Seen Alive on Video

By Scott Wilson and Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 2, 2007

JERUSALEM, June 1 -- Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent who was kidnapped March 12 in the Gaza Strip, appeared in a video posted Friday on a Web site used by al-Qaeda in which he said he is being treated well and called for an end to sanctions against the Palestinian Authority.

"They have fed me well, there has been no violence towards me at all, and I'm in good health," Johnston, 45, said in the video, which was made by a group calling itself the Army of Islam.

There was no indication of when the video was made, but it is the first evidence Johnston is alive since he was seized by gunmen in the final weeks of a grueling two-year assignment as the BBC's correspondent in Gaza.

"I feel deeply for Alan Johnston and his family," Prime Minister Tony Blair said while traveling in South Africa. "We are doing everything we possibly can do to secure his release."

Intelligent and taciturn, Johnston is a veteran correspondent who previously served in Afghanistan. By living in Gaza, an increasingly violent stretch of coast that is home to nearly 1.5 million Palestinians, Johnston had made a larger commitment to the story there than any Western journalist at the time he was abducted.

Appearing in a red sweat shirt and probably speaking under some duress, Johnston said: "Every day there are Palestinians arrested, imprisoned for no reason. People are killed on a daily basis. The economic suffering is terrible, especially here in Gaza."

Johnston also referred to what he called the "failed invasion of Iraq by America and Britain," saying his government is trying to occupy Muslim lands.

A number of armed groups and clans in Gaza have seized Westerners as bargaining chips to win jobs or the release of jailed family members from the weak Palestinian government. Johnston has been held for 81 days, longer than any other journalist kidnapped in Gaza.

Last summer, a correspondent and a cameraman for Fox News were held for two weeks. The terms of their release remain unclear, but U.S. officials confirmed that they were held by the Dagmoush clan, a large Gaza family once allied with the armed Islamic movement Hamas.

Most international donors froze financial aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas, a movement that does not recognize Israel's right to exist, won January 2006 parliamentary elections and acquired day-to-day control of the government. The ensuing economic decline has hit Gaza hard, and the World Food Program recently estimated that eight in 10 residents rely on U.N. agencies for food.

The Army of Islam, which claims to operate in the spirit of al-Qaeda, showed Johnston's identification card in a video posted last month. In that video, the group, which has strong ties to the Dagmoush clan, demanded the release of Abu Qatada, a radical Muslim cleric under house arrest in Britain and believed to have close links to al-Qaeda.

British authorities said in mid-May that they were in discussions with Abu Qatada's lawyers about the possibility of the cleric making an appeal for Johnston's release, which he had offered to travel to Gaza to do. Foreign Office officials said at the time that Abu Qatada was placing "unacceptable conditions" on making such an appeal. On Friday, a Foreign Office spokesman said there was "nothing further to report."

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