GAZA (Reuters) - Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held hostage in the Gaza Strip, was freed on Wednesday after a deal between the ruling Hamas Islamists and the al Qaeda-inspired clan group that kidnapped him in March.
“It is just the most fantastic thing to be free. It was an appalling experience,” he told the British public broadcaster from the home of local Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh after his 114-day ordeal at the hands of the shadowy Army of Islam.
Johnston said he was ill at times but only at the last did they beat him during a wild midnight drive to freedom. Mostly alone with a single, moody guard, he did not see the sun for months but was comforted by messages of support on his radio.
Haniyeh, whose movement routed the forces of the secular, Western-backed Palestinian president last month to seize full control of the coastal enclave, said the outcome “confirms (Hamas) is serious in imposing security and stability”.
Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s exiled overall leader, told Reuters it contrasted with “anarchy” prevailing when the Fatah faction of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas was active in Gaza.
But, in a mark of the bitterness dividing Palestinians, a senior aide to Abbas dismissed Hamas’s statements as “a movie” and “falling out among thieves” between Hamas and the Army of Islam, whose rhetoric echoes that of al Qaeda groups elsewhere.
Abbas himself welcomed the end of an abduction he said had harmed all Palestinians and said armed groups must be dissolved.
Johnston, the only Western correspondent based full-time in Gaza, said his captors suddenly lost confidence after Hamas took full control three weeks ago and set about imposing order: “I’m pretty sure if Hamas hadn’t come in and stuck the heat on in a big way, I’d still be in that room,” he told a news conference.
He said the kidnappers were “a small jihadi group” more bitter at the West than over Palestinian conflicts with Israel.
Israel said Hamas should now free an Israeli soldier whom Hamas militants have held captive in Gaza for a year.
Negotiators were backed by Hamas fighters cordoning off the stronghold of the heavily armed Doghmush clan. Hamas officials say some of its members are behind the Army of Islam, whose precise links, if any, to foreign al Qaeda groups are unclear.
Mediators said a Muslim cleric’s “fatwa” clinched Johnston’s release — but also noted Hamas forces had detained leading clan figures and then let them go in return for the hostage.
They said there was no ransom or other conditions. The group had demanded Britain and other states free Islamist prisoners.
“I dreamt many times of being free and always woke up back in that room. Now it really is over and it is indescribably good to be out,” said Johnston, a Scot who turned 45 in captivity.
Describing it as the worst time of his life and “like being buried alive”, he told reporters at the British consulate in Jerusalem that reports on his own radio station of a worldwide campaign of support sustained him through “waves of depression”.
He feared for his life immediately after being seized on March 12, as well as when he was filmed wearing an explosive vest by captors who warned Hamas forces not to try to free him.
Britain and other powers recognise only Abbas’s new government in the West Bank as legitimate in the Palestinian territories and again called on Hamas to renounce violence.
But Foreign Secretary David Miliband also acknowledged the “crucial role” Haniyeh and Hamas played in Johnston’s case.
Haniyeh, elected 18 months ago, still calls himself prime minister but was fired by Abbas after last month’s violence.
Johnston thanked people round the world, his colleagues and especially Palestinian journalists in Gaza for their support. His father said he was “overjoyed” after a “living nightmare”. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed a “great relief”.
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Alastair Macdonald, Julian Rake and Avida Landau in Jerusalem and Shams Odeh and Suhaib Salem in Gaza