Sat, Apr 14, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UN chief calls for release of kidnapped BBC reporter

TIMING The BBC's chief is also making a visit to the region to push for freedom for Alan Johnston, who has been held longer than other foreigners in the Gaza Strip

AGENCIES , UNITED NATIONS AND LONDON

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Thursday for the immediate release of a BBC journalist abducted in the Gaza Strip a month ago and offered to help secure his freedom.

The correspondent, Alan Johnston, has been held longer than any other foreign journalist seized in the Gaza Strip.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the kidnapping.

"I sincerely hope that those who are responsible for this abduction should release him unconditionally and immediately," Ban told reporters. "I am deeply concerned. I will do whatever I can in my capacity as secretary-general."

"Freedom of coverage, as well as freedom of the press, should be protected as a matter of principle," Ban said.

Mark Thompson, BBC director general, met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday night and was told there was "credible evidence" that Johnston is alive.

The BBC has not had any direct contact with the kidnappers who seized the journalist at gunpoint as he drove home from his office in Gaza City on March 12.

Speaking in London, Johnston's father read out an emotional open letter to his son and the kidnappers. The BBC and other international news channels, including al-Jazeera English and Sky News, then aired a jointly produced half-hour program about the kidnap.

Palestinian journalists gathered at a rally in Gaza and posters of Johnston were displayed in Edinburgh, Glasgow and in Trafalgar Square in central London.

More than a dozen journalists and foreign aid workers have been kidnapped in Gaza in recent months, but Johnston, 44, has now been held longer than any other hostage. He has lived in Gaza City for the past three years -- the only foreign correspondent permanently based there -- but was due to return to a staff job with the BBC in London two weeks ago.

No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, although it is presumed to be the work of one of the large criminal clans.

A new coalition government was supposed to bring an end to the security crisis in Gaza, but the fact that Johnston's kidnap has dragged on so long suggests that the government is at a loss to deal with the problem.

"The only thing being destroyed by such despicable acts is the Palestinian cause," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

In Ramallah, Thompson called for a swift end to the kidnapping: "I appeal to all those who may have influence with the kidnappers, to use their best endeavors to secure Alan's release safely and speedily and ensure his return."

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