Monday, June 18, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Alan Johnston’s kidnappers have threatened to “slaughter” him if Hamas tries to rescue him, but Hamas sources say the comments are little more than bluster ahead of an imminent handover of the long-held BBC correspondent.

A senior source within the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told The Washington Times that in the actual negotiations, the kidnappers have reduced their demands to guarantees for their own safety.

The Hamas negotiating team has refused to give a blanket immunity and has demanded that two members of the Doghmush clan, which is holding Mr. Johnston, must be handed over for immediate trial on murder charges.

Facing international isolation after their blitzkrieg two-day victory over Fatah, Hamas leaders are anxious to gain international approval by securing the release of the British Broadcasting Corp. reporter, who was kidnapped in Gaza City on March 12. They also hope to show that their armed men have the muscle to restore order in the still-volatile Gaza Strip.

Hamas has withdrawn its demand for the arrest of 18 clansmen, saying this will be decided through normal police procedures, a source involved with the negotiations said.

Mumtaz Doghmush, a top clan member involved in holding Mr. Johnston, will not be arrested immediately but might be detained later, the source said.

“At the moment, he has a one-in-a-thousand chance of escaping jail, or worse,” said the source in the office of Mr. Haniyeh, who was dismissed as prime minister by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week but still holds sway in Hamas-ruled Gaza. “But if he fights us, he has zero chance of survival.”

The negotiations began months ago through messages, but in the past two weeks, each side has sent negotiators to houses for face-to-face meetings, a negotiator said.

“In the beginning, we tried to persuade them on moral or ethical grounds, and asking them how this benefits Islam,” he said. But the pressure has been radically increased in the past few days, he said, largely because “the majority” of the well-armed Doghmush clan have warned Mumtaz Doghmush that they cannot back him in any violent confrontation with Hamas.

“They have also lost their ideological support and their support from security groups and people like Ahmed Dahlan,” the source said, referring to Mr. Abbas’s national security adviser who has abandoned his Gaza base and moved to the West Bank.

A masked spokesman for the Army of Islam group repeated a previous demand for the release of “our Muslim prisoners” in a dramatic appearance on Al Jazeera television.

But the negotiators say the Army of Islam dropped this demand during negotiations more than a week ago.

“They still sought the release of the woman involved in the Jordanian hotel bombings,” he added, “but we told him this has nothing to do with our Palestinian struggle.”

Hamas, which last week seized military control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Mr. Abbas, has its own scores to settle with a major part of the volatile clan, which recently switched sides after a huge payoff from a top Fatah official.

Hamas has presented the clan with a list of demands, including the handover of several men within the Doghmush clan who they accuse of killing or attacking Hamas members.

“We believe our decisive action against Fatah these last few days has shown them what happens to people who oppose our will,” said the negotiator, who insisted on anonymity.

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