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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)

The men placed a hood over his head and rifled through his pockets, taking money he had just withdrawn from the bank and laughing over their good fortune.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


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