Abduction of BBC correspondent remains a mystery

Joel Greenberg
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

JERUSALEM - More than three weeks have passed since the kidnapping of a BBC correspondent in the Gaza Strip, with no word on who seized him or why.

Alan Johnston, the only Western correspondent based in Gaza, has been held longer than any other foreigner abducted in the coastal strip. His continued captivity has become a symbol of impotence of the Palestinian Authority in the increasingly lawless territory.

The British consul general in Jerusalem, Richard Makepeace, met Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza on Thursday to discuss the case, the first diplomatic contact between Britain and a Hamas leader.

The talks were described by British officials as strictly humanitarian in nature and not a departure from the European Union policy of shunning Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, the U.S. and Israel.

Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian government spokesman, said after the meeting: "I think we are on the way to resolve it. But we need more time, to bring him alive and not harmed, without using force, but we are discussing all choices."

The Palestinian Authority's failure to free Johnston, respected for his meticulous coverage, has generated angry protests by Palestinian journalists, who staged a three-day news boycott of their government's activities this week.

On Thursday journalists in Gaza marched to the office of president Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza City, scuffling with security officers, after protesting Wednesday at the parliament building and blocking the entrance, forcing legislators to cancel a session. Foreign journalists joined Palestinian colleagues at a demonstration Monday in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Both Haniyeh and Abbas have said they are doing their utmost to free Johnston, 44, who was taken at gunpoint from his car on March 12 as he drove home from the British Broadcasting Corp. office in Gaza City. No group has claimed responsibility for the abduction or issued any demands.

"We're really no better off in terms of hard information than we were on the day Alan was taken," said Jonathan Baker, deputy head of news gathering for BBC News, who is in Jerusalem to follow the case.

"We haven't had direct contact from anyone, we haven't heard from anyone saying they are holding Alan, we don't know for sure who they are, why they are holding him or what they want."

Reports circulating in Gaza have attributed the abduction to the powerful Dughmush clan, who are said to be involved in arms dealing and other criminal activities and are considered responsible for the kidnapping last summer of two Fox News journalists, who were held nearly two weeks.

The heavily armed family has been feuding with Hamas since two clan members who worked for security forces dominated by the Fatah faction were killed in a clash with Hamas gunmen in December.

In the past year, 18 foreigners, mostly journalists and aid workers, have been abducted in the Gaza Strip. All were released within hours or days. The kidnappers have usually demanded jobs, money or arms.

Khaled Abu Hilal, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, said after Johnston's kidnapping that such abductions were motivated by "private agendas."

But the kidnappings of foreigners, which began in 2005, have had a broader impact.

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, said the abductions had driven away foreign aid workers, diplomats and journalists from the impoverished strip.

Most of the international field staff of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees was temporarily withdrawn last month after gunmen tried to abduct John Ging, the agency's field director in Gaza, firing 11 bullets at his armored car.

The kidnappings of foreigners are "hurting us, punishing us, deforming us," Sourani said. "Those who committed this should be arrested, charged and tried according to the rule of law, but very unfortunately they were rewarded."

Sufian Abu Zaida, a Fatah leader and former minister who was briefly kidnapped during a surge of internal fighting in December, said the abduction of foreigners was part of the general breakdown of law and order in the Gaza Strip, which is plagued by factional and family feuds.

"Everyday we have cases of shooting, kidnapping, killing," Abu Zaida said. "As a Palestinian I feel ashamed."

The solution, Abu Zaida, said, is an overhaul of the security services, which effectively function as militias of rival groups. "We need to start working together to enforce the law, but when everybody has a weapon it is difficult to talk about law and order," he said.

Meanwhile, Johnston, praised by both Palestinian and foreign colleagues as a dedicated reporter devoted to telling Gaza's story, remains in captivity, caught in the deepening chaos he was documenting on BBC radio and television.

His three-year stint in Gaza was to have ended this week.

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