Freed BBC Reporter Recounts Long Ordeal in Gaza

Cheering staff members at the BBC's offices in central London celebrate the release of correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped March 12 in Gaza.
Cheering staff members at the BBC's offices in central London celebrate the release of correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped March 12 in Gaza. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 5, 2007

JERUSALEM, July 4 -- An ebullient and relieved Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent set free Wednesday after 114 days as a captive in the Gaza Strip, suggested that the turning point leading to his release was Hamas's 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 Hamas does not recognize.

But Johnston said that 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 pre-dawn 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's role in Johnston's release as a bid to gain international credibility after its brutal takeover of Gaza. The conquest has further divided the West Bank and Gaza, the two territories envisioned as a future Palestinian state, and fractured the provisional government established 14 years ago to run them.

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

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