LONDON – The British government is in talks with a man once known as Usama bin Laden's spiritual ambassador in Europe in an attempt to secure the release of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, the Foreign Office said Thursday.
"We have been in discussion with Abu Qatada via his lawyer with regards to making an appeal for his release," said a Foreign Office spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Johnston, who turned 45 Thursday, was kidnapped March 12 in Gaza City by Palestinian gunmen. His alleged kidnappers have demanded Qatada's release from Longlartin Prison in Britain.
In a statement released to a London-based Islamist organization late Wednesday, Qatada offered to travel to Gaza and meet with Johnston's captors.
"I announce my full readiness to go on a trip to Gaza, with a delegation from BBC, to meet with the brothers, the abductors, concerning the release of the journalist Alan Johnson," Qatada said in a letter sent to the Islamic Observatory Center.
The Foreign Office said it had not heard of the radical cleric's offer.
In the letter Qatada accused the British government of not being serious in its efforts to release Johnston, saying its actions are "heading in the direction that will end up with him being killed."
Qatada — a radical cleric of Palestinian-Jordanian descent and a Jordanian citizen — was once described by a Spanish judge as Osama bin Laden's "spiritual ambassador in Europe." He is awaiting deportation to Jordan after the British government accused him of raising funds for extremist groups and offering "spiritual advice and religious legitimacy" to militants planning attacks.
"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 British Broadcasting Corp. said in a statement.
Britain agreed to deport Qatada to Jordan after securing a guarantee with Jordan that those deported there will not be tortured, despite the country's poor human rights record. Opponents claim the agreements, known as Memoranda of Understanding, are not binding, and offer no protection to suspects.
Qatada's appeal against his deportation was refused in February.
His lawyer, Gareth Peirce, said she would appeal again, saying his human rights risked violation if he were to be returned to Jordan.
There is no immediate timeframe for his deportation.
Qatada — also known by his real name, Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, and as Omar Abu Omar — has denied supporting terrorism and claimed he would not receive a fair trial if deported to Jordan, where he has been convicted in connection with two 1998 bombings. He has been jailed in Britain under anti-terrorism laws since 2005.
Palestinian security officials said they believed the group claiming to hold Johnston is the Army of Islam.
It is unclear whether the shadowy Palestinian group has ties with Al Qaeda.
The group released a 20-minute recording recently, demanding Abu Qatada's release.
A picture of Johnston's press card accompanied the recording.