2 Abducted Journalists Are Freed in Gaza Strip

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 28, 2006

JERUSALEM, Aug. 27 -- After being forced at gunpoint to say they embraced Islam, two Fox News journalists kidnapped 13 days ago were delivered unharmed to a Gaza hotel Sunday.

Palestinian officials said no demands were met in securing the release of American reporter Steve Centanni, 60, and New Zealand cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36.

"I'm so happy to be free," Centanni said shortly after his release.

There was little information made public about the kidnappers, and no arrests were made. Saed Siyam, the Palestinian interior minister, said they are "not al-Qaeda." The anti-American rhetoric in statements from the group, which called itself the Holy Jihad Brigades, had raised new concerns for the safety of Western aid workers and reporters working in the Palestinian territory.

In a brief and chaotic news conference in Gaza, both Centanni and Wiig said they hoped their abduction would not deter reporting on the Gaza Strip.

"My biggest concern really is that as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists would be discouraged from coming here to tell the story," Wiig said. "That would be a big tragedy for the people of Palestine, and especially for the people of Gaza."

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called the journalists' release "very good news." But, noting the continued dangers of reporting in the Gaza Strip, the group protested an Israeli missile attack early Sunday on a truck clearly marked "TV," which seriously injured two Palestinian journalists with the Reuters news agency.

More than a dozen journalists have been briefly abducted in the Gaza Strip in the last year, but the kidnapping of the Fox News television crew was the longest any had been held. Centanni and Wiig were taken out of their car in Gaza on Aug. 14 by four masked gunmen.

Hoods were put over the journalists' heads, Centanni said in an interview broadcast by Fox News. The men were bound tightly with plastic handcuffs that were "very painful," driven to a garage and forced to lie facedown on the floor, he said.

Over the days, while other Palestinian groups disavowed and condemned the abduction, the men were told to "write the story of your life" and other statements and to make videotapes, which "we didn't want to do," Centanni said.

A videotape released Wednesday showed the two men, appearing casual and relaxed. But another tape, sent to al-Jazeera television just hours before their release Sunday, showed the two men somberly reading texts criticizing the American administration and saying they had become Muslims. A statement said they had taken the names Mohammed and Yusef.

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," Centanni said on Fox News. "Don't get me wrong here, I have the highest respect for Islam and learned a lot of very good things about it. It was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns and we didn't know what the hell was going on."

Seeing that tape "was not a pleasant sensation," John Moody, Fox News senior vice president for news editorial, said in an interview from New York. He credited Palestinian officials with working hard for the journalists' release. He said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator for the Clinton and Bush administrations and now a Fox News analyst, played "a crucial role" in dealing with the Palestinian Authority.

In Gaza, Centanni and Wiig met briefly with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes issued a statement saying that "journalists should never be hostage or pawns in world events. Their job is to tell the story of the world as it unfolds."

Staff writer Howard Kurtz in Washington and special correspondent Islam Abdelkarim in Gaza contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company