Palestinians hold back raid on hideout for kidnapped British reporter

Thursday, May 3, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The Palestinian government knows where to find a British journalist kidnapped nearly two months ago but has held back on raiding the hideout at Britain's request, the Palestinian prime minister said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said negotiators had instead persuaded the captors, whom he indicated were Islamic extremists, to reduce their demands for the release of Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped March 12 in Gaza City.

Haniyeh, from the Islamic Hamas, said Johnston's kidnappers reduced their original demands, confirming earlier reports that officials were negotiating with the kidnappers. He did not say what the demands were.

It was the first time the Palestinian prime minister has spoken at length about the government's efforts to free Johnston, who has been captive more than 50 days -- longer than any other foreigner kidnapped in Gaza.

Haniyeh suggested the kidnappers belonged to an Islamic extremist group. The kidnappers mixed "politics, ideology and [Islamic] religious law ... that moved them to think that this work [kidnapping] is allowed," he said.

The Palestinian prime minister said a messenger sent his office 10 ideological questions posed by the kidnappers about the legitimacy under Islamic law of taking Johnston hostage.

Haniyeh said Islamic religious experts were called in to answer the questions, and through "debate and study, the demands were reduced to three." He said they were not related to Palestinian politics.

Haniyeh said his office was trying to negotiate a meeting with the kidnappers or their representatives.

The prime minister said officials "seriously" considered using force to raid the area where they believed Johnston was being held, but the British government requested they not use violence, fearing harm could come to the reporter.

Palestinian officials, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have said they believe Johnston is in good health, though they have not presented evidence. A little-known Palestinian group claimed to have killed Johnston in April, but provided no proof.

The BBC declined to comment on Haniyeh's remarks.

"We continue to be told by Palestinian authorities that they are doing everything they can to release Alan," said Simon Wilson, editor of the news organization's Middle East bureau. "It's not appropriate to comment on other people's contacts."

There has been string of kidnappings of foreign journalists by Gaza militants over the past two years. No one has been charged or arrested in previous kidnappings.

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