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Abbas, Haneya Agree on Plan to Free BBC Reporter
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Thursday that hope remained to free a captive British journalist in Gaza. Abbas has successfully brokered a plan with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haneya to free the BBC's Alan Johnson. 

Alan Johnston, 44, a reporter for BBC Radio in Gaza was abducted from his car on March 12. No movement has claimed the kidnapping and Johnson's fate has now stretched on longer than any foreign journalist previously seized and released in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas said that a plan had been finalized Haneya and Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmi to help free the kidnapped BBC reporter.

"I have come to Gaza to work on releasing the captive British correspondent," Abbas told a crowd of Palestinian journalists, protesting the kidnap in front of his journalist.

On Wednesday, Abbas received a call from British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett to discuss freeing Johnson.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haneya on Thursday also met with British Consul-General Richard Makepeace in Gaza Strip in the first high-level contact between Haneya and a British diplomat.

Speaking before the 30-minute meeting, a British official specified that Consul-General Richard Makepeace would "just discuss the kidnapping" and that these talks should not be taken as a change of policy for the EU, which sees Hamas as a terrorist group. 

"We had asked for a meeting with the prime minister over this very important humanitarian issue," Makepeace told reporters in Arabic after the session, which drew Israeli criticism.

"I believe all of us want to achieve a peaceful and a quick solution to this unfortunate problem," he said.

Ghazi Hamad, a Palestinian government spokesman, said: "I think we are close to resolve it (Johnston's release). But more time will be needed to bring him back peacefully, alive and unharmed, so we are discussing all possibilities."

Hamad revealed that Haniyeh told Makepeace of his hopes that this meeting could lead to wider dialogue with Britain on political and economic issues.

Israel has stated that Western powers should keep up their boycott of the new unity government formed last month by Hamas and Abbas' secular Fatah party.

This boycott stems from Hamas refusing to accept demands from a Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the United States, the EU, the United Nations and Russia - namely that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

A senior Israeli official criticized the meeting as having harmed efforts to reduce Hamas' political clout, and as having set a dangerous precedent for diplomatic advances being gained through kidnapping foreigners.

"This undermines our policy and opens the door to further abductions," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The United States, briefly breaking ranks with Israel, also said it would hold unofficial contacts with non-Hamas government figures, a line followed by Britain and some European nations.

Western diplomats have retaliated saying that the no-contact policy regarding Hamas can be relaxed in extreme cases such as Johnson's abduction. 

(Xinhua News Agency, China Daily via agencies, April 6, 2007)

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