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Reporter recalls his dread

BBC journalist released in Gaza says he feared the worst when he met the kidnappers' leader, an Islamic extremist.

July 05, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — During nearly four months of solitary confinement, BBC correspondent Alan Johnston felt "buried alive" but buoyed by international support he knew was out there by listening to his network's radio broadcasts.

In his first lengthy remarks after being freed by Palestinian kidnappers in the Gaza Strip, Johnston said Wednesday that coverage of vigils and worldwide expressions of encouragement helped him fight despair and stay focused as days of captivity turned into weeks and months.

"It's a battle to keep your mind in the right place," the 45-year-old Johnston said during a news conference at the British Consulate in Jerusalem. He spoke about 14 hours after captors released him from a darkened room in Gaza City where he had spent many of the preceding 114 days.

Before dawn, Johnston's captors handed him to officials of the militant Hamas movement, which had said after taking sole control of Gaza last month that freeing him was a top priority. The kidnappers, members of a heavily armed clan calling itself the Army of Islam, freed him after hundreds of Hamas gunmen surrounded the family's compound.

Pale and squinting in the afternoon sunshine, Johnston sported a fresh haircut. He was occasionally philosophical as he described moments of terror and weeks of grinding dread.

Johnston said he was stopped by gunmen March 12 while driving home on a quiet street, a trip he said he had made "a thousand times" during his three years in Gaza. The kidnappers handcuffed the Scot and threw a hood over his head as they rifled his wallet, plump from a recent trip to the bank, and took his watch.

He was familiar with Gaza kidnappings, most of which ended after a few hours.

"I was wondering, is this one of the more benign Gaza kidnaps?" Johnston recalled. "What I was worried about all the time was that it was a jihadi group."

His fears were apparently confirmed when he met the kidnappers' leader and concluded from his garb and rhetoric that his captors were Islamic extremists.

"They described me as a prisoner in the war between Muslims and non-Muslims," Johnston said. "He was a guy who saw any Westerner as worthy of punishment."

Johnston said it was his only face-to-face meeting with the leader, whom he did not identify.

The journalist said he was moved two times. He spent most of his captivity in the company of the same guard, a man in his 20s whom Johnston described as moody but not violent. Johnston was kept in a single room but allowed to use an adjacent kitchen to prepare simple meals of bread, cheese and eggs.

He said the kidnappers appeared relaxed until Hamas routed the rival Fatah movement's forces last month during a week of brutal street fighting.

"Suddenly, they were worried that Hamas had them in their sights," he said. "I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and turned the heat on in a big way, I'd still be in that room."

For Hamas, which has vowed to bring order to the violence-plagued strip, Johnston's release marked an opportunity to win credibility in the face of international efforts to isolate the movement in Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, fired the Hamas-led government after the fighting, which left Gaza to Hamas and the West Bank in Fatah's hands.

An Abbas aide, Yasser Abed-Rabbo, accused Hamas of staging Johnston's release in coordination with the captors as part of a bid to gain international legitimacy.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader who was fired by Abbas as prime minister, took the occasion of Johnston's release to urge Israel to negotiate a swap of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Palestinian militants in a raid a year ago.

The Army of Islam joined the military wing of Hamas and a third group, the Popular Resistance Committees, in that attack.

Israeli leaders again demanded Wednesday that Hamas free Shalit, now 20.

"Israel believes that Hamas was and remains a terrorist organization," said David Baker, an official in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Johnston said his confinement was a "special journalistic hell" because he was unable to cover the tumultuous events that suddenly left Hamas in sole control of what is in effect a Gaza ministate.

"I devoted three years of my life to covering that place, and the biggest story that happens when I'm there -- I'm lying in a cell."

--

ellingwood@latimes.com

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