BBC "concerned" with Gaza journalist's fate

GAZA (Reuters) - The BBC expressed deep concern at an e-mail on Sunday saying its missing correspondent in Gaza had been killed by Islamist kidnappers but the British broadcaster and Palestinian officials said the claim was not verified.

BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in a file photo. Johnston has not been heard from since his car was found abandoned on March 12. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem/Files

“We are deeply concerned about what we are hearing -- but we stress, at this stage, it is rumour with no independent verification,” the BBC said in a statement after the claim from a previously unknown group that journalist Alan Johnston had been killed.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was urgently checking the situation.

One of the few Western reporters based in the troubled territory, Johnston, who is British, has not been heard from since his car was found abandoned on March 12. He has now been missing for longer than any of the several foreigners kidnapped in Gaza in the past year.

Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmi told reporters in Gaza: “I have been in contact with all the security chiefs since I heard the information ... There is no information to confirm the killing of the journalist Johnston.”

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office in London said: “We are aware of the reports and are urgently looking into them.”

The e-mail sent to media organisations on Sunday was issued in the name of the Tawhid and Jihad Brigades, a group not known hitherto in Gaza but whose name is similar to that used by movements elsewhere affiliated to al Qaeda Islamists.

It said it would later release a video of Johnston’s killing and blamed the British and Palestinian governments for failing to meet demands that prisoners be freed from Israeli jails. No such demand has been made publicly since Johnston disappeared.

Qawasmi said: “At the Interior Ministry we have not received any demands of any kind, whether for ransom or anything else. No party has said it is holding the journalist.”

A senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Abbas was following the issue personally: “We have heard rumours. We hope he will be released alive and in good health,” Saeb Erekat told reporters. “Every effort is being exerted to avoid a disaster.”

On Thursday, a month after Johnston’s disappearance, the BBC said Abbas had told it he had evidence the reporter was well.

Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem