Freed BBC reporter credits Hamas for his release

Other News Materials 5 July 2007 13:41 (UTC +04:00)

( LatWp ) - An ebullient and relieved Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent set free Wednesday after 114 days as a captive in the Gaza Strip, suggested the turning point that led to his release was Hamas' takeover of the strip.

The armed Islamic movement is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel, whose right to exist it does not recognize.

But Johnston said after Hamas gunmen completed a military rout of rival Fatah forces on June 14, effectively setting up a parallel Palestinian government in Gaza, his kidnappers knew Hamas ``had them in their sights.''

``The whole mood changed,'' Johnston, 45, said at a news conference at the British Consulate here hours and a haircut after his predawn release. ``If Hamas didn't come in and put the heat on, I'm pretty sure I'd still be there.''

Palestinian Authority officials from Fatah, now governing in the West Bank, dismissed Hamas' role as a bid to gain international credibility after its brutal takeover of Gaza. That conquest has further divided the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories envisioned as a future Palestinian state, and the provisional government established 14 years ago to run them.

Although Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah celebrated Johnston's release, one of his senior aides suggested Hamas and his kidnappers, a group called the Army of Islam that claims to act in the spirit of al-Qaida, were allies.

``I think that this was staged by Hamas to appear as if it respects international law,'' Yasser Abed Rabbo, the senior Abbas aide, told the Associated Press.

Johnston, who was kidnapped March 12 near the end of a three-year assignment as the only Western correspondent based full-time in Gaza, appeared fit, joyful and hugely grateful over the broad campaign for his release mounted by BBC colleagues, other media, and ``big-hearted'' Palestinians.

He was aware of it during his captivity because he was allowed a radio, which picked up the BBC World Service, where he has worked for 16 years.

``What every kidnap victim fears most of all is that life will go on without them,'' Johnston said.

Johnston described in detail the anti-Western philosophy of the group that held him, daily life in the dark rooms of captivity, and what he said was the ``special journalism hell'' of missing the biggest story of his time in Gaza--the Hamas takeover--because he was locked up. He said Western journalists were right to be ``wary'' of working in Gaza.

His captivity began when two men--one armed with a pistol, the other with an AK-47 assault rifle--pulled up next to him on his daily ride to work.

The men placed a hood over his head and rifled through his pockets, taking money he had just withdrawn from the bank and laughing over their good fortune.

Many previous Gaza kidnappings have ended within hours or a few days after abductors win something from the Palestinian government, such as jobs or the release of family members in prison.

Johnston, who had covered 27 Gaza kidnappings, said he wondered initially if his was ``a more benign type of Gaza kidnapping'' or one carried out by an Islamic movement for larger political reasons.

That first evening, the head of the Army of Islam, which is aligned with the large Dagmoush clan in Gaza, entered wearing a red-and-white headscarf of the type favored by jihadists. He knew then it was the latter.

Johnston said he believes the motive behind his kidnapping was to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners.

He was moved several times during his captivity, once being told ``cruelly'' that he was being sent back to Scotland, where he is from. The vast majority of his time was spent in the company of one ``moody, unpleasant guard.''

He thought of escape. But Johnston, a slight, bald man experienced in war zones, said he realized he would be no match for the guard, whom he described as ``a tough urban guerrilla in his 20s.''

Sunlight was a privilege he rarely had.

``We lived the weirdest of the odd couple,'' Johnston said.

Before the Hamas takeover, Johnston said, ``my feeling was these guys were just cruising along'' without fear of Palestinian security forces either attempting a rescue or applying pressure for his release.

But Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas prime minister fired by Abbas last month following the factional fighting, announced soon after the takeover that securing Johnston's freedom was a priority.

Johnston said Hamas immediately began sending warnings and detaining members of the Army of Islam. There were also several Hamas-set deadlines, which lapsed.

The pressure prompted his captors to arrive with a briefcase containing an explosive vest, which Johnston was forced to wear in a video released June 25 on which he warned that he would be killed if there were an attempt to rescue him by force.

He called making the two videos released during his captivity--the first was a political message criticizing British and American policy in the Middle East--a ``grim'' experience. Each, he said, was scripted by kidnappers ``who hold all the cards.''

The vest may not have been rigged at the moment to explode, he said, but the briefcase remained an ominous fixture next to the television set in the guard's room. The group also brought in a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

``Whether they would have allowed me to live or die, I'm just glad I'm standing here today and didn't have to find out,'' Johnston said.

The process of his release began just after 3 a.m. Wednesday when several gunmen he had not seen previously burst into his room and told him to get dressed. He suspected ``bad news.''

But as he began an ``appalling ride'' through a series of Hamas checkpoints opened for his delivery, he began to have slim hope that his ordeal was ending. The men driving him were furious, frightened, and two of them hit him several times in the head.

He stepped out of the car to more gunmen, but also some familiar, friendly faces from the media.

``You just keep living,'' Johnston said.