- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. and Saudi officials were working together to try to save an American hostage whose captors have said they would kill him today unless Saudi authorities release al Qaeda prisoners.

Meanwhile, a letter signed by a “believer” has urged the militants to spare the hostage, Paul Johnson, saying killing him would violate Islamic law.

“I will never forgive you. I will curse you in all my prayers” if he is harmed, warned the letter posted late Wednesday on Web sites where al Qaeda supporters and other militants leave messages. It was aired yesterday on Saudi-owned TV network Al Arabiya. The letter also pointed to a saying by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad: “If they were granted [Muslim] protection, then killing or taking their money or harming them is forbidden.”

The letter, signed by Saad al-Mu’men — a pseudonym meaning “Saad the Believer” — identified the writer as a Saudi friend of Mr. Johnson’s and said he had bestowed his protection as a Muslim on the American hostage.

Mr. Johnson’s kidnappers said in a video and a written statement on a Web site Tuesday that Saudi authorities would have 72 hours to respond to their demands or Mr. Johnson would be killed.

The 72 hours ends sometime today; the kidnappers did not specify what time the countdown began or when it ends. Saudi newspapers yesterday quoted unidentified government officials as saying the kingdom would not give in to the demands of terrorists.

A U.S. Embassy official in the Saudi capital said contacts with Saudi authorities were ongoing, but he would not comment further on the hunt for Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson, 49, had worked in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade and was kidnapped Saturday by a group calling itself “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The organization is thought to be headed by Abdulaziz Issa Abdul-Mohsin al-Moqrin, the top al Qaeda figure in Saudi Arabia.

In Mr. Johnson’s home state of New Jersey, his son, Paul Johnson III, made a plea yesterday for his father’s safe return. In an interview on NBC’s “Today,” he said he had received no indication that authorities have made any progress in the search for his father.

In the letter, Saad al-Mu’men said Mr. Johnson — who works for Lockheed Martin on targeting and night-vision systems for Apache helicopters — had expressed opposition to U.S. foreign policy and an interest in converting to Islam.

Al Arabiya said Saad al-Mu’men said in an interview that he chose Islamic Web sites known for airing radical views because he was sure the kidnappers would monitor them.

Other contributors to the sites where the letter was posted ridiculed the message and called for Mr. Johnson’s death.

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