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The Islamist Hamas movement says it had launched an operation to free kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston. He has been held in Gaza for four months by a group called the Army of Islam. A Hamas spokesman says its forces are tightening their siege of that group. And the leader of Hamas says time is running out.
NPR's Linda Gradstein was in Gaza today and filed this report.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: Members of Hamas' executive force have surrounded the Sabra neighborhood in Gaza City, home to the Dagmoush clan, the group behind the Army of Islam. They're stopping people on the streets, checking identity cards. Anyone with the name Dagmoush is arrested, at least 15 people today. Dozens of Hamas gunmen have also taken up positions on high-rise buildings on the edge of the neighborhood, and many residents of the buildings have left, fearing they could be caught in the crossfire.
There were reports that a civilian was killed in an exchange of fire, but the reports could not be confirmed. Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the breakaway Hamas government in Gaza, which is not recognized by the international community, today said Hamas is committed to freeing Alan Johnston, who's been held since mid-March.
Mr. ISMAIL HANIYEH (Senior Political Leader, Hamas): (Through translator) Regarding Alan Johnston, all options are open to us. We are working to solve this peacefully. But if they do not release Johnston, we will consider all alternatives.
GRADSTEIN: Hamas radio also broadcast a phone number, urging listeners to call in with any information on Johnston's captors. Hamas officials have said they know where the reporter is being held, but are afraid to storm the hideout, fearing he could be killed in a crossfire. Last week, the Army of Islam published a videotape showing Johnston wearing what appeared to be an explosives belt. They threaten to kill him if they are attacked. The Army of Islam also demanded the release of a radical Muslim cleric with ties to al-Qaida, who is being held in a British jail.
Yesterday, Hamas arrested the spokesman of the Army of Islam in a bid to step up the pressure on the group to release Johnston. Hamas, which took over Gaza last month after a bloody fighting with members of the rival Fatah that left dozens dead, is trying to prove its international legitimacy.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has dissolved the previous unity government with Hamas and appointed an emergency government in the West Bank headed by respected economist Salam Fayyad. International aid has already begun to flow to this new government.
Hamas, today, invited foreign journalists to Gaza to meet Haniyeh for the first time since Hamas took over this the Strip. Wearing a gray check suit and a small gold lapel pin with a Palestinian flag, Haniyeh spoke slowly, carefully weighing his responses. He called for the resumption of talks between Fatah and Hamas.
Mr. HANIYEH: (Through translator) Dialogue is the only way to sum all the internal problems among Palestinians. I call on Fatah to resume the dialogue.
GRADSTEIN: So far, at least, Abbas says he will not restart talks with Hamas on a new unity government. On the streets of Gaza, residents say they feel safer now with Hamas in charge than they have in years. Rowan Abuhamda(ph), a mother of two young girls, says crime is down, and more people are out on the streets at night.
Ms. ROWAN ABUHAMDA: Before, we were here, we were going back to home by 10:00 or 11:00 o'clock. Now, the people can stay longer for 1:00 o'clock, 2:00 o'clock to come - to return back to their homes now. Yeah. They feel - it's safer now. And we can see all the security forces in the street also.
GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Gaza.