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(photo credit: AP [file])
GAZA CITY - A senior British diplomat and BBC officials met Thursday with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to push for the release of a BBC journalist kidnapped three weeks ago.
Though the meeting between Haniyeh and British Consul-General Richard Makepeace focused on the narrow issue of the kidnapping, it 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.
BBC reporter Alan Johnston was seized by gunmen outside his Gaza City apartment March 12. There has been no word on him and no claim of responsibility by any group. He is the longest-held reporter in Gaza, which has prompted concerns about his fate.
"We will not spare any effort to bring back the journalist, the friend, the human being to his family," Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Gaza City.
During a press conference with Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad, Makepeace said he asked for the meeting with Haniyeh to discuss Johnston.
"God willing, we can have progress in the soonest possible time," he said, speaking in Arabic.
Two British diplomats said the meeting with Haniyeh did not constitute a change in British policy toward Hamas.
Hamad said Haniyeh briefed Makepeace on Palestinian security forces' efforts to free Johnston. He said special units are leading the search.
"We prefer to deal with it peacefully without using violence but we are discussing all the choices," Hamad said. "But we really want to bring him back alive and safe and not harmed."
Makepeace also met separately with Abbas's security adviser, Gaza strongman Muhammad Dahlan.
Senior diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said they understood that Makepeace met with Haniyeh specifically to deal with the kidnapping of Johnston, that Israel viewed this as an isolated meeting and that there was no concern that it signified any shift in the British or EU policy of not having contact with Hamas ministers.
The sources pointed out that the British themselves issued a statement to this effect.
The statement, issued by the British Foreign Office, said that the meeting with Haniyeh was "requested and granted on humanitarian grounds. It does not change our normal policy on political contacts with members of Hamas."
Earlier Thursday, about 350 journalists and activists marched from their protest tent in Gaza city toward Abbas's office to protest Johnston's continued detention.
Security guards tried to stop the protesters, scuffling with some and firing in the air. The group was eventually allowed through and rallied outside Abbas's office. "Freedom for Johnston," a banner read.
Israel, the US and the European Union have refused to meet Hamas officials, citing the group's failure to renounce violence and recognize Israel. However, the EU and the US have met with non-Hamas members of the unity government.
Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian information minister, called the Haniyeh-Makepeace meeting a "good development."
"It doesn't matter what the topic is," he said. "I think they (the British) are developing the position of the EU in a positive way ... We are one team, and the world must deal with us as one team."