Operation to release Alan Johnston begins: Hamas and the al-Qaeda inspired Army of Islam swapped prisoners on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip as mediators negotiated to free an abducted BBC reporter, a spokesman for a group of Palestinian mediators said.
Abu Mujahed, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella militant group in Gaza, said the “Army of Islam has released nine students and Hamas has released detained members of the Army of Islam.”
Hamas forces have meanwhile surrounded an area in Gaza City inhabited by the clan where the Army of Islam has the bulk of its supporters, and where Hamas, which now controls Gaza, believes BBC journalist Alan Johnston is being held.
In a statement, Hamas’s police called the Executive Force said it would “continue to besiege the area until British journalist Alan Johnston, who was abducted a few months ago, is freed”.
Eariler Tuesday night, exchanges of fire between Hamas and Army of Islam gunmen were reported in Gaza City. Palestinians said a bystander was killed in the crossfire.
Palestinian sources reported of a number of injuries on both sides. Hamas gunmen encircled the complex of the Dogmush family, one of the strongest in Gaza. Mumtaz Dogmush heads the Army of Islam with the support of the entire family.
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources said the wave of kidnappings in the Strip is continuing in the framework of the struggle between Hamas and the Army of Islam.
'We'll slaughter him like a lamb'
Two weeks ago Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, announced that it was determined to release the British reporter “very soon”.
“We will release him by force if needed,” the group’s spokesman said at the time. “We will not allow any more kidnappings of journalists in our territory.”
Last week Johnston’s kidnappers threatened to “slaughter him like a lamb” unless Britain and Jordan release Muslim prisoners.
Johnston's kidnappers, who are affiliated with the Army of Islam, are demanding the release of Sajeda Rishawi, an Iraqi citizen sentenced to death in Jordan for her involvement in the 2005 Amman bombing.
Army of Islam, which is a little known al-Qaeda inspired organization, is also demanding that Jordan release Abu Mohammed Al Makdisi, an Iraqi al-Qaeda leader, as well as the release of several other extreme Islamic militants, including the radical clergyman Abu-Kateda, who is held in a British prison.
About two weeks ago, Johnston's kidnapers released a video of him strapping an explosives belt. The video, which aired on an Islamic website, showed Johnston warning that his captors would kill him should any attempt to forcefully release him be made.
"The kidnappers say they would activate this (explosives) belt if any attempt to break in here is made," said Johnston on the video. "I call upon Hamas and the British government not to try to bring this situation to an end by force."
Forty-five-year-old Johnston was kidnapped by Army of Islam militants last March in Gaza.
Reuters contributed to this article