2 Fox journalists abducted in Gaza appear in video

August 24, 2006|By LAURA KING | LAURA KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM --Seated against a black backdrop, appearing pale but calm, two Fox News journalists kidnapped last week in the Gaza Strip appealed in a videotape released yesterday for their freedom.

It was the first confirmation that they were alive and well since the brazen abduction in central Gaza City on Aug. 14.

The purported kidnappers spoke out as well. A heretofore unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades took responsibility for the abduction and demanded the release of all Muslim prisoners held by the United States - "everybody without exception" - within 72 hours.

"Release what you have, and we will release what we have," the group said in a statement given to reporters. "If you implement our conditions we will implement our promise; otherwise you will have to wait, and God will be the judge."

The statement, in elaborately religious language, included references to several Quranic verses, one of which alludes to the exchange of prisoners in wartime. It was not immediately clear whether it referred to prisoners being held in the United States or to American facilities in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan.

The group's claim to be holding the journalists could not be independently verified, but Palestinian security sources said that in light of the coordinated release of the demand and the videotape, it appeared that the kidnappers had issued the statement.

It was not possible to ascertain when the tape showing correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig was made.

Fox News released a statement by Senior Vice President John Moody in New York: "We're encouraged that our colleagues appear to be alive and well in the tape that was released today. We trust that the abductors understand they are responsible for Steve and Olaf's welfare and safe return. We ask for their immediate release."

Armed, masked men grabbed Centanni and Wiig from their news van in Gaza City as they were working. The kidnapping took place close to a Palestinian security services headquarters.

Centanni, 60, is American; Wiig, 36, is from New Zealand. Wiig is married to freelance television journalist Anita McNaught, who joined Palestinian journalists last week in appealing for the release of the pair.

A delegation from New Zealand met yesterday with senior Palestinian officials.

The kidnappers made no specific threats against the men if the demands were not met but said in the statement that "this is a chance we are giving you, and God knows it might not be repeated." The statement also directed taunts at President Bush, saying that "the dignity of a single Muslim is worth 20,000" of him.

About a dozen foreigners have been abducted in the Gaza Strip over the past year, but usually they are freed within a matter of hours or days.

Israel withdrew soldiers and Jewish settlers from the seaside territory during the summer of 2005, but troops and tanks re-entered Gaza on June 28, three days after an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid. Nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in fighting since then.

In the videotape, Centanni and Wiig could be seen seated on the floor on what appeared to be a blanket. No markings were visible on the black backdrop behind them.

"We're alive and well, in fairly good health," Centanni said, his voice low but calm. "Just want to let you know I'm here and alive and give my love to my family and friends and ask you to do anything you can to try to help us get out of here."

Wiig, also even-voiced and looking directly into the camera, said: "I know my family will already be doing this, but if you could apply any political pressure that would be much appreciated by both Steve and myself."

The two, clad in tracksuits, said they were being given basic necessities such as clean water, food, access to toilet facilities and clean clothing. Both appeared somewhat haggard but without visible signs of any physical abuse.

An Israeli security source said the abduction represented a marked departure from previous kidnappings in several respects, including the length of time the captives have been held and the nature of the demands. However, the source, who had no specific knowledge of the current case, said the kidnappers could have been copying similar demands by militants in Iraq.

The ruling Hamas movement, already under intense pressure from international sanctions and the Israeli military offensive, has repeatedly called for the release of the journalists and disavowed any knowledge of the kidnapping. Palestinian security forces have been searching for the pair.

"We denounce the kidnappings of foreigners and journalists," said Sami abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Hamas movement. "We urge the kidnappers to immediately free them."

Consular officials have informed British and American journalists that there are specific and credible kidnap threats against them and have warned against travel to Gaza.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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