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Radical group frees BBC journalist

Johnston held for 114 days

LONDON — BBC reporter Alan Johnston was freed in the early hours of Wednesday morning amid exuberantly chaotic scenes in Gaza. The journo, looking understandably relieved and exhausted, had been in captivity for 114 days after being kidnapped March 12 in Gaza by a radical group calling itself the Army of Islam.

Johnston was handed over to officials from Hamas, the Palestinian faction who had wrestled full control over Gaza from rival party Fatah amid violent internecine battles only weeks earlier, following a late night deal with Johnston’s captors.

“It was an appalling experience as you can imagine, 16 weeks kidnapped, sometimes occasionally quite terrifying and frightening,” said Johnston in an interview with the BBC shortly after his release. “It’s just the most fantastic thing to be free.”

The BBC released a statement expressing the org was “delighted and extremely relieved that our friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, has been released.”

The BBC also issued a statement on behalf of Alan Johnston’s family. “The last 114 days have been a dreadful time for us — but particularly for Alan. Through it all, we never lost hope. Alan had always told us of the friends he’d made in Gaza. We knew, in the end, they would be there for him,” read the statement.

While Gaza had become an increasingly hostile territory for Western journos in recent months following a spate of kidnappings, most of those taken had been freed in a matter of days. The unusual length of Johnston’s captivity, as well as conflicting information from his kidnappers, had increased concerns for the reporter’s safety.

At one point, a statement released by the militant group said it had killed Johnston to send a “message” to the Palestinian authorities. Later, two videos were released of Johnston, including one where he was shown with a belt of explosives strapped to his waist.

The safe release of Johnston has been a rare PR coup for Hamas and the group have been quick to take the credit for freeing the reporter, who until his capture had been the only Western journalist to be stationed in Gaza full-time.

Johnston traveled to the house of Hamas leader Ismael Haniya directly after his release, where the two had breakfast and held a joint press conference.

“This confirms (Hamas) is serious in imposing security and stability and maintaining law and order in this very dear part of our homeland,” said Haniya.

While British government officials, including new prime minister Gordon Brown praised the “crucial” role Hamas played in securing Johnston’s freedom, some Fatah officials, while commending the journo’s release, still took the opportunity to blast their bitter rivals for what they described as a PR stunt.

“We’re watching a movie where the thieves in Gaza fall out and one of them claims to be honest and brave and other is the bad guy,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Palestinian prexy and Fatah topper Mahmoud Abbas.

Johnston finally left Gaza shortly after his meeting with Ismael Haniya and is currently in Jerusalem, from where it is believed he will travel back to Britain.

The reporter’s abduction had led to a worldwide campaign, with fellow journos and members of the public calling for his release. An online BBC petition saw over 200,000 signatories, while Palestinian journos in both Gaza and the West Bank held a number of demonstrations calling for his freedom.

“The Palestinian people did rally in a very moving way to try to secure my release,” said Johnston.

The reporter revealed he had spent the majority of his captivity chained in a shuttered room with no sunshine, although has not been physically harmed until the final moments before his release, when his captors reportedly hit him “a bit.”

It was unclear Wednesday if the BBC would station another reporter full-time in Gaza once Johnston returned home.

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