6,500 sign petition calling for BBC reporter's release

More than 6,500 people from around the world have added their names to a petition calling for the release of kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston.

A further 500 people have also posted messages of support on the BBC News website.

The petition was launched in Monday's Guardian newspaper when 300 leading figures from the journalistic community called for Johnston's immediate release.

Almost all national newspaper editors, including the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre, The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger and Robert Thomson of The Times have pledged their support.

Johnston was last seen on the afternoon of 12 March 2007 and has worked in Gaza for three years. His disappearance is the longest a journalist has been held in Gaza since the recent spate of kidnappings in the region.

Two Fox News journalists kidnapped last August were released after 13 days.

The petition was opened on 2 April to anyone wishing to express their support for Johnston at: www.bbc.co.uk/haveyoursay.

Meanwhile, a senior British diplomat and BBC officials met Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and moderate President Mahmoud Abbas today to push for the release of Johnston.

The meeting between Haniyeh and British Consul General Richard Makepeace was the first face-to-face encounter between a diplomat from an EU country and a Hamas official of the Palestinians' recently-formed national unity government.

"We will not spare any effort to bring back the journalist, the friend, the human being to his family," Mr Abbas told reporters in Gaza City.

"God willing, we can have progress in the soonest possible time," Makepeace said in Arabic during a press conference with Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad.

Mr Hamad said Haniyeh briefed Mr Makepeace on Palestinian security forces' efforts to free Johnston. He said special units were leading the search.

"We prefer to deal with it peacefully without using violence, but we are discussing all the choices," Mr Hamad said. "But we really want to bring him back alive and safe and not harmed."

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