June 17, 2007 / 5:30 PM / 12 years ago

Palestinian group denies deal to free reporter

DUBAI (Reuters) - A Palestinian militant group holding BBC reporter Alan Johnston said on Sunday there was no deal to free the Briton abducted in Gaza three months ago and said he would only be released if its demands were met.

A file photo of a Palestinian journalist hanging a poster of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza April 15, 2007. A Hamas official said on Sunday Johnston, abducted in Gaza three months ago, would be released within hours. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

“Freeing this detainee has not been part of any deal with any faction or organization. What appears on television screens and through the media here and there is untrue,” a man identified as a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Gaza told Al Jazeera television.

“If they do not meet our demands there will be no release for that detainee and if things become more difficult ... then we would seek God’s satisfaction by slaughtering this journalist,” said the spokesman, identified as Abu Khatab.

An official of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas said earlier on Sunday Johnston would be released within hours, but as the clock ticked by another senior Hamas member counseled caution.

The British Foreign Office said such statements only caused distress to Johnston’s family and friends.

“We continue to urge Alan’s safe and swift release and welcome the efforts of all those in the Palestinian territories to that end,” a spokesman said.

The BBC said it was aware of the statement and other reports coming out of Gaza on Sunday.

“We are watching developments very closely,” it said.

Abu Khatab acknowledged that negotiations for the release of the 45-year-old man were under way, but insisted that at least part of the group’s demands be met.

In a June 1 video, the group holding Johnston repeated its demand for Britain to free Muslim prisoners, particularly the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada.

“There are negotiations. One session after another, but we are interested in the main point, which is this detainee will not be released until they meet these demands, or what could be agreed upon (the release of) other detainees other than (Abu) Qatada,” said the masked militant surrounded by gunmen.

Johnston, the only Western correspondent based full-time in Gaza, was seized on March 12.

None of several foreigners seized in Gaza in recent years has been harmed. None has been held as long as Johnston, with most freed within days.

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