GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) – British reporter Alan Johnston, looking gaunt and walking stiffly, was released Wednesday after nearly four months in captivity in the Gaza Strip, saying it was “fantastic” to be free after an “appalling” ordeal in which his life was threatened.
The British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent was freed under murky terms after the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza stepped up the pressure on his captors, a shadowy group called the Army of Islam.
At a news conference with Hamas officials, Johnston — who was held in captivity far longer than any other foreign reporter in Gaza — described his experience as “occasionally terrifying.”
“The last 16 weeks, of course, were just the very worst you can imagine of my life, like being buried alive, really, removed from the world,” he said, in a weak but composed voice.
His kidnappers, he said without elaborating, “did threaten my life a number of times in various ways.”
Hamas had demanded Johnston’s freedom since it violently seized control of Gaza last month, apparently hoping to curry favor with the West. On Tuesday, Hamas gunmen took positions around Army of Islam’s stronghold, stepping up the pressure to secure his release.
Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the former Palestinian prime minister, would not disclose details of the release deal at the news conference with Johnston. But earlier in the day, Hamas said there would be no crackdown on the Army of Islam, which is dominated by the powerful, heavily armed Doghmush clan.
Shortly after his release, Johnston told the BBC in a telephone interview that it was “indescribably good to be out” after his “appalling” captivity.
“It is just the most fantastic thing to be free,” he said. He said he had feared hours before his release that he would not get out alive if Hamas stormed his hideout.
“I thought there was a chance that they might really kill me, that they might not let Hamas get what they came for,” Johnston told the BBC.
Johnston, a native of Scotland kidnapped on a Gaza City street on March 12, told the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite news network by phone that he was in good health despite the “immense” psychological pressure.
Asked if he would return to Gaza, which he had covered for three years, Johnston replied, “After many months of kidnapping, I think I need a break.”
He set out for Jerusalem in the company of British diplomats after the news conference and a breakfast of broad beans and falafel with Haniyeh.
Johnston recounted for reporters how he was chained up for 24 hours at one point, moved twice during his captivity and hit “a bit” in the last half hour before he was released.
The first month, he said, he was kept in a place where he could see the sun, but afterward, he was closeted in an apartment where the shutters were always drawn.
“It’s been basically three months since I saw the sun,” he told BBC TV at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel.
Johnston said his abductors “seemed very comfortable and secure in their operation until … it became clear that Hamas would be in control.”
“If it hadn’t been for that real serious Hamas pressure, that commitment to tidying up Gaza’s many, many security problems, then I might have been in that room for a lot longer,” he told the news conference.
Haniyeh wrapped up the news conference by draping a Palestinian flag around Johnston’s shoulders, which he quickly removed, and pinned a Palestinian flag pin on his blue blazer.
Alan’s parents, Graham and Margaret Johnston and sister Catriona, said they were “overjoyed” by the news that he was free.
“The last 114 days have been a dreadful time for us but particularly for Alan. Through it all, we never lost hope,” the family said in a statement issued by the BBC.
Simon Wilson, the BBC’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, told reporters in Gaza City that he was “delighted” by Johnston’s release. The British government said it would not have an official comment until morning.
The Army of Islam had demanded in exchange for Johnston that Britain first release a radical Islamic cleric with ties to al-Qaeda. It also had threatened to kill Johnston if Hamas tried to free him by force.
Last week, the Army of Islam posted a video message from Johnston on a militant Web site in which he appeared to be wearing an explosives belt that he said his captors would detonate if there were an attempt to free him. That was the second sign of life from Johnston during his captivity, the first being a brief videotape in early June.
The BBC reported Johnston spoke to his father, Graham, after he was freed. A BBC spokesman in London had no details of the terms of the reporter’s release.
The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that Johnston’s captors be punished.
“We are relieved that Alan Johnston has finally been freed after this cruel ordeal,” executive director Joel Simon said. “Now it is up to Palestinian authorities to see that those responsible are located and swiftly brought to justice. As long as those who abduct journalists continue to enjoy impunity, journalists will remain increasingly vulnerable to future attacks.”
Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman, said Johnston’s captors had responded positively to recent efforts by tribal and religious leaders to end Johnston’s ordeal. Taha said the Army of Islam would not be dismantled or disarmed in return for freeing the reporter.
Army of Islam spokesman Abu Khatab al-Maqdisi, who had been arrested by Hamas as a potentially valuable bargaining chip earlier this week, said his faction would work together with Hamas, a one-time ally.
A senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, denied that Hamas acted in an effort to improve its relations with the West, which is boycotting the Islamic group over its violently anti-Israel ideology.
“We didn’t work to receive favors from the British government. We did this because of humanitarian concern, and to achieve a government aim to extend security to all without fear,” Zahar said.
There was no immediate comment from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah movement, who disbanded Hanieyh’s government after Hamas’ Gaza takeover and set up an emergency Cabinet in the West Bank. Hamas has not recognized that government’s authority, and parallel governments have in effect been operating in the West Bank and Gaza since mid-June.
The Abbas government has been recognized by the West, but Hamas, infamous for its violently anti-Israel ideology, remains internationally isolated.
Following Johnston’s release, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad called for renewed dialogue with Abbas “so that we can return to a normal situation.”
On Tuesday, Hamad declared that “the clocks have begun ticking toward the release of Alan Johnston” after Hamas militiamen moved onto rooftops of high-rise buildings and deployed gunmen in streets of the Gaza City neighborhood inhabited by the Doghmush clan. Electricity was also cut off.
Late Tuesday, the Doghmushes and Hamas released other hostages, including al-Maqdisi, in a run-up to Johnston’s release.
The Army of Islam, whose formerly close relations with Hamas soured earlier this year, was one of three Hamas-allied groups that captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit more than a year ago. At the news conference, Haniyeh said Hamas was interested in ending Shalit’s captivity through an “honorable” prisoner exchange deal.
“Israel welcomes the release of Alan Johnston and we know that the release brings relief brings to his family and friends,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. “Israel hoped for his safe release, just as we hope for the safe release of our own hostage Gilad Shalit.”