A little-known Islamist group claimed responsibility in an audio recording Wednesday for abducting the BBC's Gaza correspondent, issuing demands immediately rebuffed by the Palestinian government.
As evidence that it is holding BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, the group posted on the Internet a photo of his BBC identification card.
The posting appeared to be the first tangible evidence that Johnston, who disappeared on March 12 while driving his car in the Gaza Strip, had been kidnapped. Johnston has been held captive longer than any of the previous foreign journalists who have been seized, and subsequently released, by gunmen in Gaza.
"We demand that Britain free our prisoners, particularly the honorable Sheikh Abu Qatada al Filistini," said a speaker on the audio recording, posted on the Internet by a group that calls itself the "Jeish al-Islam", or Army of Islam. The authenticity of the tape could not immediately be verified.
Abu Qatada, a radical Islamic cleric suspected of close links to Al-Qaida, has been described by the British government as a "significant international terrorist".
He is one of more than a dozen Arab men whom Britain has been holding under detention or house arrest as threats to national security, while acknowledging that it does not have sufficient evidence to put them on trial.
The Special Immigration Appeals Commission in London ruled in February Abu Qatada could be deported to Jordan, where he has been convicted twice in absentia of involvement in terrorist plots, despite the likelihood he would face a flawed trial.
The recording was posted on an Islamist website often used by Al-Qaida and other militant groups, and was accompanied by what appeared to be a picture of Johnston's BBC identification card.
The recording did not include any information about Johnston's condition.
"We have not forgotten our prisoners in other infidel countries, to whom we say: 'Free our prisoners or we will retaliate in the same manner without discriminating'," said the speaker in the recording.
The Army of Islam was one of three Palestinian groups, including Hamas' armed wing, that were involved in last June's seizure of an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid from Gaza.
Mohammed al-Madhoun, a political advisor to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said the demands made in the audio recording were the same that the group presented privately to the Palestinian government.
"These demands are beyond the boundaries of the Palestinian area and I do not think they are doable," Madhoun said.
Madhoun said the British government had been made aware of the captors' demands but he did not expect Britain to meet them.
(China Daily via agencies May 10, 2007)