Journalist's release 'cost millions'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2007, 12:00am

Hamas reportedly paid out up to US$5m for Alan Johnston's freedom

The deal that won the release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston this week from captivity in the Gaza Strip left his captors with their lives, their weapons and, according to reports, several million dollars.

Hamas officials vowed yesterday that the weapons, at least, will not be retained for long. 'There is a decision by Hamas to confiscate the weapons of all clans and gangs in the Gaza Strip,' said a senior Hamas official. 'It's only a matter of time before the Dogmush clan [responsible for Johnston's capture] is also disarmed.'

The Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported yesterday that Hamas paid US$5 million to the clan and handed over 5 million rounds of ammunition as the price for Johnston's release. Ma'an is affiliated with neither Fatah nor Hamas.

Senior Israeli officials were quoted in the Israeli press as saying that they believed Hamas had paid a substantial sum, 'possibly millions of dollars', to Johnston's captors.

Officials of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority said US$2 million was paid. Hamas officials termed the reports of payment 'nonsense'.

Ahmed Bahr, a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, said that the leader of the Dogmush clan, Mumtaz Dogmush, realised the game was up when hundreds of Hamas fighters surrounded the houses in Gaza City where his clan is concentrated.

'He asked for a fatwa [religious ruling] from a sheikh stating that foreigners must be protected when visiting Muslims,' said Mr Bahr.

Two of the leading clerics in Gaza agreed to provide such a fatwa, giving the clan leader the religious cover he sought in order to back down.

A member of the clan told The Jerusalem Post by telephone that Mumtaz Dogmush had received assurances from Hamas officials that neither he nor his relatives would be killed if Johnston were handed over. 'We wanted to avoid a bloodbath in the Gaza Strip,' he said.

He said the agreement for Johnston's release included recognition of the Army of Islam, which the clan calls itself, as a legitimate faction in the Gaza Strip, and permission for it to keep its weapons.

According to observers in the Gaza Strip, the Dogmush clan, numbering several hundred fighters, has thrived on selling arms smuggled into the Gaza Strip through tunnels from Egypt.

Its members have reportedly been used as contract killers over the years by both Fatah and Hamas.

Some of the clan's senior figures, including Mumtaz Dogmush, have been marked for retribution by Hamas for the killing of several Hamas operatives in the past year.

A Hamas official said the Army of Islam was 'nothing but a group of thugs operating under the cover of Islam'.

The intervention of Muslim clerics as intermediaries in the negotiations before Johnston's release provides Hamas and the clan a framework of religiously sanctioned accommodation.

However, in view of Hamas' declared intention of disarming all private militias in Gaza, a clash appears inevitable.