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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
BBC marks Alan Johnston birthday
Alan Johnston
Alan Johnston has spent three years reporting from Gaza
A series of vigils has been held around the world to mark the 45th birthday of kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston.

The BBC, along with the UN and several international journalists' groups, have been holding vigils in Hong Kong, Iran, the West Bank and Moscow.

Mr Johnston was seized on 12 March in Gaza City on his way home from work.

The British government is in talks with an Islamic cleric detained in the UK who offered to help secure his release.

'Bin Laden ambassador'

The Islamic Observatory Centre, a London-based organisation, said it had received a letter from radical cleric Abu Qatada, saying he was ready to travel with a BBC delegation to Gaza and contact the captors.

"The government has been in discussion with Abu Qatada's lawyer to see if he would be willing to make a humanitarian appeal for Alan's safe release," a UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told the BBC News website.

"We regret that so far no such appeal has been made."

We welcome any assistance from any individual who might be in a position to influence the release of Alan Johnston
BBC

Mr Johnston's alleged kidnappers - a group calling itself Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) - have demanded Abu Qatada's release from Long Lartin Prison in Britain as a condition of the reporter's release.

Abu Qatada, who has been described as Osama Bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe", is awaiting deportation to Jordan after the British government accused him of raising funds for extremist groups and offering "religious legitimacy" to militants.

"As we have said over the past 66 days we welcome any assistance from any individual who might be in a position to influence the release of Alan Johnston," the BBC said.

Deep sympathy

The BBC has been featuring special reports, interviews and birthday wishes from friends and family in the hope that Mr Johnston may access them on radio or television.

Alan Johnston's parents, Graham and Margaret, were among the many who sent goodwill messages.

Alan Johnston's father, Graham
It would be a much happier birthday if you were here with us today - all our fondest love, my son
Alan Johnston's father, Graham

"We're all thinking about you all the time, constantly. It would be a much happier birthday if you were here with us today. All our fondest love, my son," said his father, in a message broadcast from Scotland.

A special edition of BBC radio's From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast, renamed To Our Own Correspondent, delivered by the BBC's world editor Jon Williams.

A spokesman for the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong, Christopher Slaughter, spoke of Mr Johnston's bravery and integrity.

"Alan Johnston has been working courageously and with great integrity in the danger zone and his captors know this," he said. "They should free him immediately."

In Tehran, the head of the Iranian Journalist Association, Mashaallah Shamsolviezin, expressed his deep sympathy on behalf of all freedom-loving journalists around the world.

The BBC said the deteriorating security situation in Gaza in recent days was worrying but everything was being done to secure Mr Johnston's release.

"Across the BBC, I know there are thousands of Alan's friends and colleagues all fervently hoping that he is safe and will soon be free to return home to his family," said BBC director general Mark Thompson.

Online petition

A tape allegedly made by Mr Johnston's kidnappers was released last week.

ALAN JOHNSTON PETITION
More than 90,000 people have written to the BBC to demand Alan Johnston's release

It showed his BBC ID card and demanded the release of Muslim prisoners in British jails.

The abduction of Mr Johnston, the only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza, has triggered appeals for his release from lawmakers and rights groups around the world.

Last week, Mr Johnston was named broadcast journalist of the year by the London Press Club for his work reporting from the Gaza Strip.

An online petition calling for Mr Johnston's release now has more than 93,000 signatures.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Birthday greetings from Alan Johnston's parents



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