A little known Islamist militant group operating in the Gaza Strip is demanding that Britain release a radical Islamic cleric in British custody in return for the freedom of kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.
The group is called Jayash al-Islam, or the Army of Islam. It has posted a recording on the Internet demanding that British authorities release radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada al Filistini, who is in British custody suspected of having links to al-Qaida.
The speaker, who identifies himself as a member of Jayash al-Islam, says if Alan Johnston is to be freed Britain must release Abu Qatada and other prisoners.
The recording was posted on a Web site used by radical Islamists, including al-Qaida. The Web site also displayed what appeared to be Johnston's BBC ID card. It was the first time since Johnston was seized eight weeks ago that any items that could be identified as linked to his abduction have been publicly displayed. The recording was also left at the Gaza offices of the Al-Jazeera news channel.
Mohammed al-Madhoun, a close associate of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told the Reuters news agency that Jayash al-Islam had also told the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government of its demands, but that the demands were outside authority of the Palestinian government. Madhoun says the demands were also relayed to British Consul-General Richard Makepeace, who met with Haniyeh on Tuesday.
The group is also believed to have been involved in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last year.
Palestinian Information Minister Mustapha Barghouti who is an independent member of the government said Wednesday efforts are continuing to free Johnston, and the Jayash al-Islam tape was an attempt to delay his release.
Barghouti says whoever is behind the tape is trying to prevent the release of Johnston, and it is unclear who exactly is behind the tape.
The BBC released a statement that it was aware of the tape, but would not comment on its demands, saying the BBC has concerns for Johnston's well-being and that he should be immediately released.
A British court ruled in February that Abu Qatada could be deported to Jordan, where he has been convicted twice in absentia for involvement in terrorist plots. He is one of about a dozen Islamists that British authorities are keeping in custody or under house arrest as national security threats, although British officials say they do not have sufficient evidence to put the men on trial.