Gaza City: BBC journalist Alan Johnston was released in Gaza City early on 4 July after nearly four months in captivity, following an agreement reached by the Islamist movement Hamas with his extremist abductors.
Looking pale and wearing a navy blue shirt with an olive green T-shirt, the British newsman laughed and smiled after his ordeal, standing alongside BBC colleagues and meeting top Hamas officials.
“Thanks be to God I am happy. It was a difficult period. I thank the Palestinian people. Thank you very much, thank you very much,” Johnston told television cameras in Arabic at the home of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya.
“I am very grateful,” he added, the last word spoken in English, wearing jeans and looking has though he had lost weight in captivity at the hands of the Army of Islam group that claimed his 12 March kidnapping at gunpoint.
“It’s just the most fantastic thing, to be free,” he said in a later telephone interview with BBC television from Haniya’s home. “It was an appalling experience, as you can imagine, 16 weeks kidnapped.”
“I am hugely grateful to all the people, an amazing number of people, that worked on the Palestinian side, the British government, the BBC from top to bottom, and the huge amount of support from BBC listeners.”
Asked how he was, Johnston replied: “I think I’m okay. It was an extraordinary level of stress and psychological pressure for a long long time, and obviously difficult to keep your mind in the right place ... a constant battle.”
A BBC official said that after meetings with Haniya, whom Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas sacked as prime minister last month over the crisis in Gaza, Johnston would be driven to the Erez border to cross into Israel.
The award-winning journalist, who comes from Scotland, had been held far longer than any other Westerner previously abducted in the impoverished and increasingly lawless territory, rocked by a spate of recent kidnappings.
Hamas had exerted increasing pressure on the fringe radical group to release the British journalist after seizing control of the entire Gaza Strip in a deadly armed take over on 15 June demanding his unconditional release.
“He was freed following an agreement with his kidnappers and he is in good health,” read a statement from the movement.
Abu Mujahid, a spokesman the radical Palestinian group the Popular Resistance Committee said his faction had mediated in the deal between Hamas and Army of Islam for the 45-year-old British reporter’s freedom.
“Army of Islam asked for a fatwa to release him. So a mufti from Gaza was brought to issue the fatwa to release Alan, saying he could not be kept for one more hour and therefore Army of Islam released him,” he told reporters.
Johnston was then released into the custody of Hamas’s armed Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades and then taken to the office of Haniya before going onto the leader’s home in the Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City.
His release came just hours after Hamas fighters waged gunbattles with Army of Islam militants, killing a civilian, in the Gaza suburb where the journalist was believed to have been held in a Army of Islam compound.
Hamas officials told AFP on condition of anonymity that under the agreement with the kidnappers, Johnston’s abductors would not go on trial.
Both the BBC and Johnston’s family expressed joy and relief at his release unharmed.
“We are delighted and extremely relieved that our friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, has been released. This is wonderful news for his family, friends and colleagues,” a BBC spokesman said.
“We are overjoyed. The last 114 days have been a dreadful time for us, but particularly for Alan. Through it all, we never lost hope,” his family said in a statement broadcast by the BBC.
The British Foreign Office said its consul had spoken with Johnston.
“Our consul-general from Jerusalem has actually now spoken to him. But, at this stage, given the unpredictable nature of Gaza, until our staff have actually seen him, we’re not going to be 100% confirming the developments,” said a spokesman.
Johnston was the only Western reporter still based permanently in the Gaza Strip when he was snatched while driving home from the BBC office.
On 24 June, Johnston appeared in a video, saying he was wearing a bomb-belt that his captors would detonate if there was any attempt to rescue him.
The Army of Islam also threatened to kill Johnston unless Britain and Jordan released Islamist prisoners, including those linked to Al-Qaeda.
Johnston’s plight sparked rallies and messages of support from all over the world and an online petition calling for his release has been signed by about 2,00,000 people.