Johnston Freed, Thanks Hamas, Palestinians

GAZA CITY — British reporter Alan Johnston was released early on Wednesday, July 4, in Gaza City after nearly four months in captivity, thanking the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas and its government in the Gaza Strip for pressing his abductors into freeing him.

"Thanks be to God I am happy. It was a difficult period," Johnston told television cameras in Arabic at the home of sacked Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, reported Agence France Presse (AFP).

"I thank the Palestinian people. Thank you very much, thank you very much," he added wearing a navy blue shirt with an olive green T-shirt.

Looking pale with a five o-clock shadow, the British journalist laughed and smiled, standing alongside BBC colleagues and meeting top Hamas officials.

"I am hugely grateful to all the people, an amazing number of people that worked on the Palestinian side, the British government, the BBC from top to bottom, and the huge amount of support from BBC listeners."

The BBC Gaza correspondent was held by the self-styled Army of Islam, grouping militants from the powerful Dagmoush clan, which is centered on northern Gaza and has a long-running blood feud with Hamas.

Hamas had exerted increasing pressure on the fringe radical group to release him after seizing control of the entire Gaza Strip on June 15, demanding his unconditional release.

His release came just hours after Hamas fighters waged gunbattles with Army of Islam militants in the Gaza suburb where the journalist was believed to have been held.

"The kidnappers seemed very comfortable and very secure in their operation until… a few weeks ago, when Hamas took charge of the security operation here," he said.

Appalling

The award-winning journalist, who comes from Scotland, spoke about his ordeal.

"It’s just the most fantastic thing, to be free," he said in a telephone interview with BBC television from Haniya’s home.

"It was an appalling experience, as you can imagine, 16 weeks kidnapped."

Asked how he was, Johnston replied: "I think I’m okay. It was an extraordinary level of stress and psychological pressure for a long long time, and obviously difficult to keep your mind in the right place … a constant battle."

He said he had been unable to see the sun for three months, and was once chained for 24 hours.

"The last 16 weeks have been the very worst of my life," he added. "I was in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable.

"I literally dreamt many times of being free and always woke up back in that room."

A BBC official said that after meetings with Haniya, Johnston would be driven to the Erez border to cross into Israel.

Johnston, an experienced reporter, was the only Western journalist permanently based in the increasingly lawless territory when he was seized on March 12.

His plight has sparked rallies and messages of support from all over the world and an online petition calling for his release has been signed by more than 170,000 people.

Fatwa

The BBC Gaza correspondent was freed after an agreement with his kidnappers, Hamas said in a statement.

Abu Mujahid, a spokesman the Popular Resistance Committee, said his faction had mediated in the deal between Hamas and Army of Islam for the release of the 45-year-old reporter.

"Army of Islam asked for a fatwa to release him. A mufti from Gaza issued a fatwa to release Alan, saying he could not be kept for one more hour and therefore Army of Islam released him," he told reporters.

A senior leader of the Army of Islam, whom the group accused Hamas of having detained, was released as part of the deal, Abu Mujahid said.

Hamas officials told AFP on condition of anonymity that under the agreement with the kidnappers, Johnston’s abductors would not go on trial.

Johnston was then released into the custody of Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, and then taken to the office of Haniya before going onto the leader’s home in the Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City.

Both the BBC and Johnston’s family expressed joy and relief at his release unharmed.

"We are delighted and extremely relieved that our friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, has been released," said a BBC spokesman.

"This is wonderful news for his family, friends and colleagues," he added.

"We are overjoyed. The last 114 days have been a dreadful time for us, but particularly for Alan," his family said in a statement broadcast by the BBC.

"Through it all, we never lost hope."

(IslamOnline.net + News Agencies – July 4, 2007)

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