BBC Reporter Released to Hamas
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
JERUSALEM, July 4 -- The kidnappers of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston released him Wednesday to a Hamas-run security force in the Gaza Strip, setting him free after 114 days of captivity.
"It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," Johnston told the BBC by telephone from Gaza. It was "occasionally quite terrifying," he added.
Less than an hour after Johnston was released to Hamas, journalists saw him at the Gaza City home of Ismail Haniyeh, the former Palestinian Authority prime minister from Hamas.
Haniyeh was fired last month by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, although he and other Hamas officials are running what amounts to a parallel administration in Gaza.
Shortly after his meeting with Haniyeh, Johnston, accompanied by British diplomats, left in a convoy for Jerusalem, a British consular official told the Associated Press.
The developments followed several days of pressure brought on the kidnappers -- a large clan known as the Dagmoush family -- by Hamas forces.
After the radical Islamic movement took over Gaza from rival Fatah forces in brutal fighting last month, Hamas leaders made securing Johnston's release a top priority.
They had hoped that quickly winning Johnston's freedom would bring some credibility to the Hamas administration in Gaza, which has not been recognized abroad, and signal a restoration of at least the semblance of law and order to the strip.
Johnston, who is of Scottish descent, was the only Western correspondent based full time in Gaza at the time of his March 12 kidnapping. Taciturn and shrewd, he is widely admired by colleagues for his knowledge of Gaza and his commitment to a grueling story sometimes dangerous and difficult to tell.
A seasoned correspondent who had previously worked in Kabul, Johnston was held longer than any other journalist taken in the strip, and his release proved more time-consuming than Hamas leaders there had originally envisioned.
Only hours after completing its military conquest of Gaza on June 14, the movement issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Johnston's kidnappers for his release.
The group holding Johnston is known as the Army of Islam, which claims to act in the spirit of al-Qaeda. But the power behind the small group is the Dagmoush clan, whose leaders are motivated more by profit than by al-Qaeda ideology.
The kidnappers, however, failed to meet repeated Hamas-set deadlines for Johnston's release. The location where he was being held was widely known in Gaza, and Dagmoush leaders feared Hamas reprisals if they let him go.
On June 25, the Army of Islam released a video of Johnston wearing an explosives vest, warning that his kidnappers would kill him if there were any attempt to rescue him by force.
But Hamas forces had been surrounding the site where Johnston was held in recent days and taking captives from the Dagmoush family itself to ratchet up the pressure.
It was unclear what arrangement had been made to secure his release.
Before the two-week abduction of two Fox News journalists in Gaza last year, most kidnappings in the strip lasted several hours to a few days at the most. Kidnappers often set captives free after securing the release of family members from Palestinian jails or obtaining jobs in the government.
Special correspondent Islam Abdulkareem in Gaza contributed to this report.