Hamas increases pressure on Johnston's captors in Gaza

Hamas gunmen today took up positions around the stronghold of the group holding kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston, stepping up the pressure to secure the BBC correspondent’s release.

Members of Hamas’ 6,000-strong militia moved onto rooftops of high-rise buildings and deployed gunmen in streets in the Gaza City neighbourhood inhabited by the Doghmush clan. The large, heavily-armed family leads the Army of Islam, a little known group that has been holding Johnston for nearly four months.

Hamas spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal said the group “will not spare any efforts to free the British journalist”.

Hamas radio also broadcast a free phone number, urging people to call in any information about the case. Witnesses said at least four members of the Doghmush clan were detained by Hamas.

Since seizing control of Gaza last month, Hamas has demanded Johnston’s release in an apparent bid to gain favour with the West.

The Army of Islam, whose formerly close relations with Hamas have soured, has demanded that Britain first release a radical Islamic cleric with ties to al Qaida. It also has threatened to kill Johnston if Hamas tried to free him by force.

Yesterday, Hamas arrested the spokesman of the Army of Islam, giving it a potentially valuable bargaining chip in its efforts to release Johnston.

Johnston, who was kidnapped on 12 March,, has been held far longer than any Western journalist abducted in Gaza. Hamas has said it knows where to find him, but has not raided the hideout for fear he will come to harm.

Last week, the Army of Islam posted a video message from Johnston on a militant website in which he appeared to be wearing an explosives belt that he said his captors would detonate if there was an attempt to free him.

The same group was involved in the capture of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized more than a year ago in a raid on an Israeli army post near Gaza.

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