Group Says It Killed BBC Reporter in Gaza

Palestinian security officials and Britain's Foreign Office are investigating unverified claims by an unknown Islamist group that it has killed a BBC reporter who has been missing in Gaza for five weeks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip and Britain's Foreign Office are investigating reports that a Palestinian Islamist group has killed Alan Johnston. He's the BBC reporter who was abducted in Gaza five weeks ago today. So far they have not confirmed the claim that Johnston has been executed, and today his colleagues and his parents made urgent appeals for the journalist's safe return.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: A Palestinian faction calling itself Monotheism in Holy War issued a statement claiming that it had killed the 44-year-old BBC Radio and TV correspondent. The group claimed his alleged execution was linked to its unmet demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The BBC expressed deep concern of the claim but stressed that there is no evidence to support it, and that it's seeking urgent clarification from Palestinian and British authorities.

Palestinian officials in Gaza also said they're not able to verify the claim. The militant group said it would issue a video of the alleged execution but so far none has been released.

Friends and colleagues today from London to Beirut held vigils in support of Johnston and urged his speedy release. BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas spoke in the Lebanese capital.

Ms. KIM GHATTAS (Correspondent, BBC): We call and all those with influence to help keep up the pressure and help bring Alan back to us safe. Journalists should be able to do their jobs, cover stories around the world and shed light on the plight of people without the fear of harassment, kidnapping or threats to their lives.

(Soundbite of applause)

WESTERVELT: More than 20 journalists and aid workers have been abducted in Gaza in recent years. Almost all were released unharmed after just a few days. Prior to Johnston, the longest kidnapping of Westerners was last fall when a Fox News crew was held for two weeks. The Palestinian Authority has not arrested or punished anyone for the abductions.

Last Thursday, the BBC's director said President Mahmoud Abbas had assured them, he had credible evidence that Johnston was alive and well. Saab Erika(ph), the senior Palestinian official, called the continued kidnapping of Western journalists and aid workers despicable acts that further destabilize Gaza and undermine efforts to create an independent Palestinian state.

Mr. SABAB ERIKA (Palestinian Government Official): This is the only thing that - this is doing is destroying us as Palestinians, destroying the just cause of the Palestinian people. So I urge those who abducted Johnston - instead of circulating rumors, and I hope these rumors are only rumors - is to release him immediately and without any conditions.

WESTERVELT: Johnston's abduction underscores the larger problem of ongoing lawlessness in Gaza. Despite a newly announced security plan and unity government between rivals Fatah and Hamas, Gaza security forces remained unable to control the streets.

This weekend, suspected Islamist militants continue a wave of violence. In recent months, more than 50 Internet cafes, music stores and other so-called immoral and un-Islamic businesses have been attacked by shadowy jihadists calling themselves the Swords of Islamic Righteousness.

Yesterday, another Internet cafe was bombed in Gaza City and a Christian bookstore was attacked and torched, rattling the normally good relations between Gaza's Muslims and its Arab-Christian minority.

Meantime, Alan Johnston's parents back home in Scotland issued another urgent appeal today for his safe return. Graham and Margaret Johnston called it a desperately worrying time for them and said, quote, "Our son has lived and worked among the people of Gaza for the last three years to bring their story to the outside world and we ask everyone of them to help end this ordeal.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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