Last Updated: Mon Nov 01, 2010 19:14 pm (KSA) 16:14 pm (GMT)

BBC reporter thanks Hamas for freedom

Johnston says the Army of Islam had a "jihadi" agenda
Johnston says the Army of Islam had a "jihadi" agenda

BBC journalist Alan Johnston was freed in Gaza on Wednesday after 16 weeks of being held hostage by Palestinian extremists, looking pale and drawn but delighted that his "terrifying" ordeal was over.

The Briton, by far the longest-held Westerner in the radicalized and impoverished Gaza Strip, stepped into the outside world before daybreak clutched by Hamas officials and surrounded by men waving guns in the air.

"It's just the most fantastic thing, to be free," he told BBC television by telephone from the home of dismissed Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya in the Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City, where he was taken after his release.

"There was almost no violence until the last sort of half an hour when they did start to hit me a bit but nothing serious," he said.

The award-winning journalist, who spent his 45th birthday in captivity, was the only Western reporter still based permanently in Gaza when he was snatched at gunpoint on March 12 by the shadowy Army of Islam group as he drove home from work.

"They talked about killing me and torturing me," he told reporters after crossing into Israel. "They handcuffed me and put a hood and took me out in the middle of the night.

"You were in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable. And always frightening in that you didn't know when it might end," he said.

Johnston thanked Hamas, the Islamist movement which seized control of the Gaza Strip in an armed takeover last month, for securing his release.

"To be quite honest, I think if it hadn't been for that real serious Hamas pressure, that commitment to tidying up Gaza's many, many security problems, I might have been in that room for a lot, lot longer," said Johnston.

Hamas had exerted increasing pressure on the fringe radical group to release the British journalist after seizing control of the entire Gaza Strip in a deadly armed takeover on June 15, demanding his unconditional release.

"This case was a first priority for the Hamas government," Haniya said.

"We made a big effort in past months to free him. He is the friend of the Palestinian people," he said, expressing hope that a deal would be reached allowing the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held in Gaza for a year.

Before Johnston left, Haniya pinned a Palestinian flag on Johnston's lapel and draped a Palestinian flag around his shoulders.

Johnston then drove across the Erez border terminal in a BBC car with the broadcaster's Jerusalem bureau chief Simon Wilson, accompanied by a British consulate car.

His release came more than a week after Johnston appeared in a video on June 24, saying his captors had strapped him with a bomb-belt and threatened to detonate it in any attempt to rescue him.

The Army of Islam also threatened to kill Johnston unless Britain and Jordan released Islamist prisoners, including those linked to Al-Qaeda.

"They had a jihadi agenda, not so interested in Israel, Palestine," Johnston said at the Erez border crossing. "They were interested in getting a knife into Britain in some way.

His ordeal sparked rallies and messages of support across the globe and an online petition calling for his release was signed by about 200,000 people.

Both the BBC and Johnston's family expressed joy and relief at his release.

Hardline Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmud Zahar, vowed that Hamas's control of the Gaza Strip would herald a new era of security in the chaotic and lawless territory.

"We are going to implement security for every Palestinian, for every guest, especially from the media... It's a new era. Safety and flourishment of the economy. Safety for all Palestinians, for everyone," he said.

In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority also welcomed the release. "We are happy for his family and sorry that he was abducted," Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to president Mahmud Abbas, told AFP.

The Israeli government immediately welcomed Johnston's release and expressed hope that its soldier would also soon be freed.

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