JERUSALEM—When two Fox television journalists were kidnapped in the Gaza Strip last week, it was widely assumed that the pair would be quickly released like two dozen other Westerners briefly abducted by Palestinian groups over the past two years.
On Wednesday, though, it became clear that the case may signal the beginning of a more perilous trend when a previously unknown group released a video of the journalists and issued demands not to Israel or to the Palestinian Authority, but to the United States.
In a two-page statement, the Holy Jihad Brigades gave the United States 72 hours to release all Muslim prisoners in American jails in exchange for the journalists' freedom.
"This is the chance we give you," the statement said. "God knows how often this kind of chance will be given."
The demand was accompanied by a 90-second video featuring Fox reporter Steve Centanni, 60, and cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, who were sitting in tracksuits on the floor in front of a plain black backdrop.
"We are alive and well, in fairly good health," Centanni said in a subdued voice. "Our captors are treating us well."
The undated video was the first news of the journalists' condition since armed gunmen kidnapped them on Aug. 14 in Gaza City near the Palestinian security services offices.
While such videos have become routine in Iraq, this is the first time that militants have used the tactic in Gaza.
In many respects, this case represents a significant departure from past kidnappings.
Until now, virtually all of the abductions were motivated by personal, not political, aims. Some kidnappers, such as those who held a McClatchy Newspapers reporter and freelance photographer for eight hours last fall, sought jobs with the Palestinian security services. Others demanded freedom for relatives held in Palestinian jails.
The Holy Jihad Brigades is the first group to make this type of political demand.
"The trend you have so far is people are taken on impulse to meet purely opportunistic, local, apolitical demands that are then easily resolved because the kidnappers are known," said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based Middle East senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "This is a more worrisome set of coincidences."
In the past, most kidnapped Westerners were released within a few hours. A British aid worker and her parents were freed after two-and-a-half-days in captivity last December, and a French journalist was released almost exactly a year ago after being held for nine days.
The statement itself was also unusual for Gaza. It repeatedly cited the Quran and denounced Western and Arab governments for their policies toward the Palestinians.
The video's release came amid new warnings that militant groups in the Gaza Strip were planning to kidnap Western journalists. Earlier this week, the BBC temporarily pulled its Gaza City-based reporter, Alan Johnston, out of the area after receiving what it believed to be reliable information that militants were targeting British journalists.
The American Consulate and Foreign Press Association both urged American journalists to avoid Gaza for the time being.
There are also significant differences in this case from those in Iraq.
No masked gunmen appeared in the video with Centanni and Wiig, and the group didn't explicitly threaten to kill its captives.
"If you implement and meet our condition, we will fulfill our promise," the group's statement said. "If not, wait, and we are going to wait."
As it has in the past, the United States immediately rejected the demands.
"It is the position of the U.S. government that we do not make concessions to terrorists," said Mica Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
Because this is a new group, it remains unclear whether the case is the vanguard of a more threatening trend in Gaza, an anomaly or simply a local Palestinian force trying to draw attention to an area that has been largely overshadowed in recent weeks by the open warfare in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.
Despite the concerns, colleagues and relatives of Centanni and Wiig took some comfort in seeing the pair in the video.
Both men appeared to be in good health. Centanni said the two were being fed regularly, allowed to shower and given clean clothes. Both men urged their colleagues, friends and relatives to do all they could to secure their freedom.
"We love you all and want to go home," Centanni said. "Hope to see you soon."
Wiig tried to reassure his family and wife, Anita McNaught, who has spent days in Gaza searching for her husband.
"Please don't worry," Wiig said. "I'll do all the worrying for us."
Until last year, kidnapping of Westerners in Gaza was almost unheard of. The tactic was dismissed by many Palestinian groups as counterproductive. But Israel's decision to end its military occupation of Gaza last summer was accompanied by a rise in lawlessness in the area.
In this case, prominent Palestinians have denounced the kidnapping and urged the captors to free Centanni and Wiig. Palestinian journalists in Gaza held a protest last week. Both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh from the militant group Hamas have criticized the abduction.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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