Mystery deepens over kidnappers of 2 journalists
Some analysts say foreign extremists may be responsible
GAZA CITY -- An unknown militant group demanded the release of Muslim prisoners in US jails within 72 hours in exchange for two kidnapped Fox News journalists, who were shown sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the floor in a video released yesterday.
The video, which broke 10 days of silence from the kidnappers, marked the first time militants in Gaza have issued demands going beyond the conflict with Israel. The footage also had none of the trappings of locally produced videos, such as flags or masked gunmen, raising the possibility that foreign extremists may have taken root in Gaza.
The kidnapping follows statements from both Palestinian and Israeli officials that Al Qaeda has been trying to infiltrate Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's withdrawal a year ago. The Egypt-Gaza border is now rife with smuggling tunnels, and Palestinian militant groups have blown up a border wall to allow people in and out of the area.
In the footage, American correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, of Washington, D.C., and cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand, appealed for help in getting released.
The images of the men sitting in a dark, drab room were the first sign of the journalists since they were abducted Aug. 14 from their TV van in Gaza City.
``Our captors are treating us well," Centanni said.
In a statement attached to the video, a group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades railed against the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and characterized them as a war against Islam. It made no demands of Israel.
Local militant groups routinely try to limit the conflict to a fight between Palestinians and Israel, fearing they could otherwise cause a backlash against the Palestinian cause. Major militant groups, including the ruling Hamas movement, have condemned the kidnapping and called for the journalists' release.
Militants with ties to Hamas have been involved in kidnappings in the past, including the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier, aimed at winning the release of Palestinians from Israeli jails.
However, Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the government, criticized the kidnapping of the Fox journalists. ``Our battle is against the occupation inside the Palestinian territories, and we are not taking our battle outside the Palestinian land," he said.
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counterterrorism specialist, said the absence of Palestinian demands in the statement made it ``much more likely that this is part of an outside group." Ganor said that since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, Islamic militants with direct or indirect links to Al Qaeda have sneaked into the territory. ``They're now well-rooted in the Gaza Strip," he said.
Over the past two years, Palestinian militants have seized more than two dozen foreigners, usually to settle personal scores, but released them unharmed within hours. The holding of the Fox journalists is the longest so far.
A Palestinian security official close to the investigation said there were several signs that an outside group was behind the kidnapping. He noted the professional quality of the video and the absence of flags, masked gunmen, or logos typically seen in videos made by local groups.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.
The kidnappers of Centanni and Wiig demanded that Muslim prisoners in US jails be released within three days in exchange for the hostages. The group did not say what would happen if the deadline passes. ``You have angered us and we are not among those who wilt when angered, but the fountains of Islam erupt within us," the statement said.
It was not clear whether the group was referring to prisoners being held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay or Iraq, where the United States is holding large numbers of Muslim prisoners.
In Washington, the State Department said it would not accede to the demands.
In the video footage, the men appear to be in good health. Centanni said the two men had access to clean water, showers, bathrooms, food, and clothing.
``So, just want to let you know I am here and alive, and give my love to my family and friends and ask to do anything you can to try to help us get out of here."
Wiig also called for help to get them freed. ``If you could apply any pressure on the local government here in Gaza and the West Bank that would be much appreciated by Steve and myself," Wiig said.