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THE WORLD

Video emerges of captured reporter

BBC's Alan Johnston says he's being treated well, criticizes the West.

June 02, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A videotape of journalist Alan Johnston surfaced Friday, the first signs of life of the BBC reporter since he was abducted in the Gaza Strip 2 1/2 months ago.

In the tape, posted on an Islamic militant website, Johnston says he is being treated well, laments the "huge" and "unacceptable" suffering of Palestinians and goes on to condemn the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Johnston appears to be speaking extemporaneously, but the circumstances of the taping were unclear. At several points, he hesitates or corrects something he has just said, or the audio skips as if the tape has been edited.

It was also unknown when the video was recorded. He does not mention specific recent events, nor is he shown with copies of newspapers or other indications of time and place.

"Every day there are Palestinians arrested, imprisoned for no reason," Johnston says to the camera. "People are killed on a daily basis. The economic suffering is terrible, especially here in Gaza, where there's ... absolute despair after nearly 40 years of Israeli occupation, which has been supported by the West."

The tape opens with Johnston, who turned 45 in captivity, saying he has been fed, hasn't been hurt and is in good health.

His family members in Scotland issued a statement saying they were "very pleased to see Alan and to hear him say that he is not being ill-treated." But, they added, "it is clearly distressing for us to see him in these circumstances."

Johnston's disappearance March 12 has served as a symbol of the dramatic deterioration of law and order in the narrow, densely populated Gaza Strip.

Gaza has been the target of Israeli airstrikes ordered in response to the firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and other militants. Fighting between rival Palestinian factions -- the Islamic Hamas and the more secular Fatah -- has killed dozens of people and set the region on edge. Hard-line Islamic groups are ever freer to operate.

More than a dozen foreign journalists and aid workers have been captured over the last year and a half, but most were released in a matter of hours.

Negotiations for Johnston's release, apparently involving the highest levels of the British and Palestinian governments, have thus far failed. Representatives of Hamas and Fatah on Friday urged Johnston be freed.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, traveling in South Africa, also called again for his release and praised him as a journalist of "independence and integrity."

The BBC also issued a statement after the videotape's release. "This is a highly distressing time for [Johnston's family] and for his friends and his colleagues. We repeat our call for his immediate release."

A senior Palestinian official, Ghazi Hamad, told a British audience last week that Johnston was alive and well and that his release was imminent.

A Palestinian splinter group called the Army of Islam claims to be holding Johnston. The videotape issued a new set of vague demands, calling on Britain to release Islamist prisoners there, and on other "infidel states" to do likewise.

The group also demanded the release of Abu Qatada, a radical Palestinian-born Muslim cleric held by British authorities for suspected ties to Al Qaeda.

In the tape, Johnston ticks off a litany of complaints against the West in a jerky, stumbling manner. "From history, the British worked to bring about the state of Israel, which is the cause of all the suffering ... of the Palestinian people, and we, the British, are completely to blame, along with the Americans, for the situation in Iraq," he says.

Toward the end of the five-minute tape, Johnston begins to address his family, but the audio is cut off.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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