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Abducted BBC journalist is released in Gaza Strip

Alan Johnston's captors free him after Hamas fighters surround their compound, a boost for the militant group.

July 04, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian kidnappers in the Gaza Strip freed BBC correspondent Alan Johnston early today, ending a 3 1/2 -month ordeal and providing a public-relations boost for Hamas leaders who seized control of the coastal enclave in June.

The 45-year-old Johnston, wan but apparently in good health, was handed to Hamas officials hours after hundreds of the group's gunmen surrounded a compound belonging to the Dagmoush family, whose members abducted the journalist March 12.

"It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," Johnston said in an audio interview with the BBC shortly after his release.

Johnston said he had a radio while in captivity and followed coverage of his case, including the international effort by the BBC, journalist groups and others to win his release.

"I just dreamt many times of being free and always ended up in that room again," he said, without providing details on the conditions in which he was kept.

Later, in a news conference with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City, Johnston said the ordeal was "occasionally terrifying." The captors threatened to kill him and, apparently angry about the negotiations, chained his wrists and ankles for one 24-hour period, he said. But he said his captors did not treat him violently and occasionally let him watch television. He said they became "much more nervous" after Hamas seized control of Gaza last month.

Johnston was rushed to the home of Haniyeh, who was fired as prime minister by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after the Hamas takeover in Gaza.

Hamas forces surrounded the Dagmoush compound late Tuesday as leaders warned that time was running out for the captors, who called themselves the Army of Islam and had demanded that the British government first release a jailed Muslim cleric.

It was not immediately clear why the kidnappers relented. The Reuters news agency quoted a spokesman for a militant faction that helped mediate the release as saying the captors agreed to set Johnston free after a senior Muslim cleric in Gaza issued a religious edict calling on them to free the journalist.

The kidnappers earlier had released three videos of Johnston, including one that showed him wearing an explosives belt and warning that he would be killed if Hamas tried to free him by force. The kidnappers' Islamist-tinged rhetoric fueled concern about the emergence of Al Qaeda-style extremism in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas officials had sought for weeks to win Johnston's release. Since gaining exclusive control of Gaza by defeating rival Fatah forces last month, Hamas saw the case as a way to show the world that it is in command and determined to restore order.

An air of lawlessness has hovered over the impoverished coastal strip for many months, the product of factional tensions between Hamas and Fatah, and of criminal gangs and heavily armed clans such as the Dagmoush group. Johnston's release probably will help Hamas and its forces rein in other family-based militias, a key ingredient in creating order in Gaza.

Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, based in Syria, was quick to claim credit for his group, saying it was bringing stability to Gaza after crushing Fatah in bloody street battles.

"We have been able to close this chapter which has harmed the image of our people greatly. The efforts by Hamas have produced the freedom of Alan Johnston," Meshaal told Reuters.

Johnston, who had worked in Gaza for three years, was seized after leaving the BBC office in downtown Gaza City.

He was held far longer than any of the more than a dozen foreign journalists and aid workers abducted in Gaza in the last two years.

The Army of Islam, led by Mumtaz Dagmoush, a longtime Gaza arms dealer, surfaced last year as one of two militant groups that joined Hamas in capturing Israeli army Cpl. Gilad Shalit during a cross-border raid from Gaza into southern Israel.

ellingwood@latimes.com

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