A video has been released showing kidnapped British Gaza-based journalist Alan Johnston in an apparent suicide bomber explosives belt and warning it will be detonated if an attempt is made to free him by force.
The video, about one minute, 42 seconds long, was posted on a website that has been used by militant groups in the past.
It opens with the title “Alan’s Appeal” in both English and Arabic and features the logo of the Army of Islam, a shadowy group that has claimed responsibility for snatching Johnston, a BBC correspondent.
“Captors tell me that very promising negotiations were ruined when the Hamas movement and the British government decided to press for a military solution to this kidnapping,” Johnston says in the recording, looking nervous and stressed.
“And the situation is now very serious, as you can see.”
Johnston is seen wearing a red sweater with a blue and white checked vest strapped around his body – the apparent bomb belt.
“I have been dressed in what is an explosive belt, which the kidnappers say will be detonated if there is an attempt to storm the area,” he continues. “They say they are ready to turn the hide-out into what they describe as a death zone if there is an attempt to free me by force.”
The BBC said in a statement that it is “very distressing for Alan’s family and colleagues to see him being threatened in this way”.
“We ask those holding Alan to avoid him being harmed by releasing him immediately,” it said.
Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip earlier this month, Hamas leaders have been saying that Johnston’s release was imminent. Hamas officials have indicated they know where he is, but have not moved in for fear of harming him.
Mahmoud Zahar, a hardline Hamas leader, said on Saturday that Johnston’s captors were hesitant to release him, fearing retaliation after he is freed.
He said Hamas is trying to convince the group that it would not be targeted if Johnston is handed over, even providing “written guarantees”.
Asked more than a week ago whether force could be used to free Johnston, Hamas spokesman Abu Obeida said all options were open but stressed Hamas wants to resolve the case “in a way that protects the safety and security of the kidnapped journalist”.
Johnston was seized from a Gaza street on March 12. His captors have previously said they want a Palestinian militant jailed in Britain to be released in exchange for Johnston.
In the video, Johnston was standing and shaking his head as he spoke. Light entered the room from above, and an Arabic translation was provided on the screen. Nobody else appears in the video.
“I do appeal to the Hamas movement and the British government not, not to, resort to the tactics of force in an effort to end this,” he says.
“I’d ask the BBC and anyone in Britain who wishes me well to support me in that appeal.
“It seems the answer is to return to negotiations, which I am told are very close to achieving a deal.”
A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Office condemned the release of the video, saying it adds to the distress of Johnston’s family, according to the BBC report.
It was not known when the video was made. Deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas referred to it in a two-hour speech yesterday in Gaza City, but it was not posted to the website until early today.
The first time Johnston was seen after his abduction was in a video posted on another website on June 1. In that tape, the journalist appeared calm and said his captors had treated him well. He also criticised Britain for its role in Israel’s creation and blamed British and American troops for the spiralling violence in Iraq.
The Army of Islam is dominated by the Doghmush family, a powerful Gaza clan with its own large militia. Although the group participated in a Hamas-backed operation to kidnap Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit last year, its relations with the militant Muslim group have since soured.
Johnston had reported from Gaza since 2005 and was the only foreign journalist to remain based there after Palestinian infighting erupted last year. There has been a series of kidnappings of foreign journalists in Gaza in the past two years, but Johnston’s captivity has been the longest.