A Hamas official said Sunday that kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who has been held by Gaza militants since March, would be freed soon, but others played down hopes of an imminent release.

After taking control of the Gaza Strip last week, Hamas officials said they had made contact with Johnston's kidnappers and would work to win his release.

"All I can say is that Alan will be free very soon," Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas militia in Gaza, said Sunday.

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However, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, downplayed hopes for his quick release, saying, "there is nothing new yet regarding Alan."

By seeking the journalist's release, Hamas was apparently trying to avoid alienating the outside world and was sending a signal to other armed groups that it intends to impose order in chaotic Gaza.

Johnston, 45, was snatched in Gaza three months ago by a group believed to have some links to Hamas, and a message purporting to be from his captors has demanded the release of Islamic prisoners, including a cleric being held in Britain.

Johnston was seen for the first since his abduction in a video posted two weeks ago on a Web site used by Islamic militants. He appeared calm and said he was being well-treated and was in good health.

His disappearance is the longest of any Western journalist abducted in Gaza and has sparked numerous protests and solidarity marches in London and the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian officials have said they know where to find Johnston, but have held back on raiding the hideout at Britain's request, for fear of harming him.

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