PALESTINE: Reporter is dead, claims terror group

Previously unknown group called Tawhid and Jihad Brigades sends e-mail to news agency claiming to have killed missing BBC reporter

Straits Times
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jerusalem --- A previously unknown group in Gaza has sent a statement to news organisations claiming to have killed Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent kidnapped in Gaza City on March 12.

The BBC said it was aware of the reports and "highly concerned," but emphasised that there was no independent verification of the claim, which it was treating as a rumour.

The group, calling itself the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades, first sent an e-mail message with the claim to a journalist at the Palestinian Ramattan news agency in Gaza.

The message said the group held the British government, the Palestinian government and the Palestinian presidency responsible for the death, and said its demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners inside Israel had not been met.

But BBC executives said only a few days ago that those holding Johnston had made no clear demands.

Johnston, a 44-year-old native of Scotland, was approaching the end of his three-year posting in Gaza when he was abducted after leaving his office on March 12. He was the only Western journalist to both live and work in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry did not have any information confirming that Johnston was killed, Interior Minister Hani Al-Qawasmeh said at a news conference in Gaza City yesterday.

"The reports about the killing of Johnston are unverified rumours," said Mr Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, at a news conference in the West Bank town of Ramallah yesterday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is "following up the issue and we hope Johnston will be released alive and with good health," Mr Erekat said.

The BBC and the Foreign Office in London said yesterday they were still working to secure independent verification of the claim.

Johnston's parents, Graham and Margaret Johnston, have made a new appeal for his release.

"Our son has lived and worked amongst the people of Gaza for the last three years to bring their story to the outside world and we ask every one of them to help end this ordeal," they said in a statement e-mailed by the BBC.

"This is a desperately worrying time for us."

At a news conference in Ramallah on Thursday that marked a month since the abduction, BBC director-general Mark Thompson said he had been told by President Abbas that there was "credible evidence" that Johnston was safe and well.

More than a dozen foreign journalists and aid workers have been abducted in Gaza in the past year, often in a bid by Palestinian militants to get money or jobs. But all were released unharmed, usually within hours or days.

The group claiming to have killed Johnston said it would soon release a video proving his death. But hours after the declaration was made, no such proof had been produced.

Thousands of people from around the world have signed a petition calling for Johnston's release, with hundreds posting messages of support on the BBC News website.

Palestinian journalists have also organised a series of strikes and rallies to protest against his abduction.

Palestinian moderates in Gaza have voiced concern recently over what they call the growth of "Al-Qaeda-type thinking" in the Gaza Strip.

Over the weekend, a Christian bookstore and an Internet cafe were damaged by bombs that were presumably the work of Islamic militants.

Tawhid and Jihad was the original name of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's first group in Iraq, before he changed it to Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

It is unclear whether there is any relation, in intent or reality, between the new Palestinian group and the Iraqi insurgent group.