A Palestinian militant group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston, and is demanding the release of Muslim prisoners being held in Britain in exchange for his freedom.
Al Jazeera reports that it received a recording, purportedly from the group Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam, which claims responsibility for the kidnapping of Mr. Johnston in March.
In the tape, the group said: "We demand from Britain that it release our prisoners and particularly Sheikh Abu Qatada the Palestinian and in this regard we do not forget our prisoners in other infidel countries and we say to all of them free our prisoners or we will do the same to you.
"We won't make an exception for anyone. If you need money to release our prisoners we will give you all you need up to the last dirham we have."
Johnston is believed to have been kidnapped at gunpoint as he returned home from work March 12. At the time, Johnston was the only Western reporter permanently based in the Gaza Strip, where he has lived for three years.
The BBC writes that the material it received included an image of Johnston's press ID card, which the news organization is investigating. The BBC adds that Jaish al-Islam is a "known Palestinian group," and is thought to be one of three groups responsible for the kidnapping of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit last summer. The BBC also released this statement regarding the tape:
"We are aware of the tape released by the Army of Islam concerning our Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston. We have no comment on the demands made of the British government in the tape - we remain concerned for Alan's well-being and call for his immediate release."
The press-freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders also released a statement calling for Johnston's release. "Journalists must not be used as bargaining chips," the statement said. "The Gaza Strip risks being completely abandoned by journalists. Most foreign news organisation[s] are already strongly advising their correspondents not to go there."
Agence France-Presse writes that a spokesman for Hamas condemned the actions of Jaish al-Islam, and said that Hamas no longer had ties with the organization.
"We reject these methods used by certain Muslim believers because they harm Islam. The affair of Alan Johnston is immoral and we call on his holders to release him," the Hamas spokesperson in Gaza, Ayman Taha, told AFP.
AFP also reports that the cleric named in the recording, Abu Qatada, was arrested in Britain in August 2005 in the crackdown following the July 7 London suicide bombings. Mr. Qatada, who a Spanish judge once described as Al Qaeda's "spiritual head" in Europe, currently faces extradition to Jordan.
The Daily Telegraph of London writes that if genuine, the tape - which makes no mention of Johnston's whereabouts or wellbeing, nor any threats to his health - would be the first legitimate message from his kidnappers.
Last month another obscure jihadist group, The Brigades of Holy War and Unity, released a statement claiming to have executed Johnston, but failed to produce a promised video of the killing.
There have been precious few leads about the reporter since he was abducted at gunpoint as he drove home from work.
It had been thought the kidnapping was the work of criminal elements from the Dogmush clan, a large Gazan family with scant respect for the law and a large private arsenal of weapons. But it is possible they may have sold him on to the highest bidder, possibly a jihadist group.
The Associated Press notes that the tape was released just hours after Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh met with a senior British diplomat to discuss the case. A spokesman for Mr. Haniyeh said that the prime minister's office had yet to verify the tape.
Still, officials in the Palestinian Authority have maintained that they have been assured that Johnston is safe and in good health. The AP also reports that Haniyeh's office has been negotiating with the kidnappers, trying to persuade them that the Islamic justification they claim for the kidnapping is mistaken.
"It's on the way to being resolved. It's being addressed religiously and ideologically," [Ahmed Youssef, an aide to Mr. Haniyah] said, but would not say whether he expected Johnston to be released in days or weeks.
Youssef said negotiators were trying to convince kidnappers that the extremist Islamic ideology they used to justify holding Westerners was incorrect. Last week Haniyeh suggested the kidnappers belonged to an Islamic extremist group.