Military on standby to free journalist

A CLOSE adviser to the Palestinian president confirmed last night that military action was being planned to free kidnapped Scottish journalist Alan Johnston.

A day after a video was released by a group claiming to be his captors, picturing him alive and well, Saeb Erekat, an adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas, said all factions condemned the abduction, and added: "We must really determine where his location is, and then move... even if it takes a military or a security operation."

The video of the BBC reporter, seized two and a half months ago, was broadcast on a militant website on Friday by his self-proclaimed kidnappers, calling themselves the Army of Islam.

Erekat said the Palestinian Authority knew nothing about the so-called group or its alleged leaders in the Dugmush clan. But he said that all sides of Palestinian political life were united in their determination to secure Johnston's release.

Erekat said: "Fatah, Hamas, all the factions, the president, the prime minister, in this particular case, they see eye to eye. We are all unified as far as condemning this despicable and shameful act."

The video, Erekat said, amounted to a "proof of life", but he added that it was clear the journalist was speaking under duress. Asked about the Army of Islam, he said: "These people are nothing more than gangsters. I don't think they are linked to anyone."

Military operations have been used to free kidnapped westerners in Iraq when all diplomatic avenues appeared to have been closed. In March last year, Briton Norman Kember and two Canadian fellow peace activists were freed by multinational forces after being held hostage in Iraq for almost four months.

Kember, a 74-year-old aid worker from north-west London, was seized in Baghdad the previous November, but was liberated following a covert operation led by British troops and involving US and Canadian special forces. Two earlier British hostages, Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan, were killed by their captors.

Although there is no indication when the Johnston video was recorded, his parents expressed their relief at the first positive sign about his condition since he disappeared.

Graham and Margaret Johnston said they were "buoyed up" after seeing the first images of their son since he was captured in Gaza City on March 12, and they had been given "renewed hope".

Mr Johnston said: "It's the first indication we have had that he's okay. For all 81 days, or whatever it is, we keep wondering how he is, how is he being treated. So, yes, this has buoyed us up, very much. I would just hope this maybe is the end game. We hope and pray it is."

Johnston, 45, was pictured from the waist up wearing a red sweatshirt and appeared calm as he delivered a statement lasting around five minutes to the camera, claiming he was being treated humanely by his captors.

"They have fed me well, there has been no violence towards me at all and I'm in good health," he said.

He also called for an end to Western sanctions that have been imposed on the Palestinian government: "Every day there are Palestinians arrested, imprisoned for no reason. People are killed on a daily basis. The economic suffering is terrible, especially here in Gaza."

Johnston also said the British government was working to occupy Muslim lands, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, against the will of the people there.

At the end of the tape, the Army of Islam demanded the release of Abu Qatada, a Palestinian-born Islamic cleric who is suspected of close links to al-Qaeda and is currently held by the UK government as a threat to national security.

The Foreign Office condemned the video's release, which it said could only add to the distress of the reporter's family and friends.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his anointed successor, Gordon Brown, both came forward to call for the reporter to be freed immediately.

Johnston's abduction has triggered appeals for his release from lawmakers and rights groups around the world. More than 130,000 people have now signed an online petition calling for his release.


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