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Johnston: It was like being buried alive
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15:54, July 05, 2007

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GAZA: Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held hostage in the Gaza Strip, was freed yesterday after a deal was reached between the Hamas Islamists - who control the territory - and the Al-Qaida-inspired 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 had twice fallen sick and was once chained for 24 hours but only in the last half hour did they "hit me a bit" during a midnight drive toward freedom. Often in "solitary confinement", he had spent three months unable to see the sun.

Haniyeh, whose movement routed the forces of the secular, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last month to seize full control of Gaza, said the outcome "confirms (Hamas) is serious in imposing security and stability".

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' exiled overall leader, said it contrasted with "anarchy" prevailing when the Fatah faction of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas was active in Gaza.

But a senior aide to Abbas dismissed Hamas' statements as "a movie" and "falling out among thieves" between Hamas and the Army of Islam.

Johnston, the only Western correspondent based full-time in the troubled coastal strip, said he sensed his captors felt new pressure after Hamas defeated Fatah three weeks ago.

Negotiators were backed up by heavily armed Hamas fighters cordoning off the Gaza City stronghold of the Doghmush clan. Officials say clan members are behind the Army of Islam.

Mediators said the final deal was clinched by a Muslim cleric issuing a "fatwa" for Johnston's release. They said no ransom was paid nor other conditions attached. The group had previously demanded Britain and other states free 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 a news conference: "It's almost hard to believe that I'm not going to wake up in that room."

He feared for his life immediately after being seized on March 12, as well as when he was filmed wearing an explosive vest.

British diplomats whisked Johnston by road to the consulate in Jerusalem. Britain, like other powers, recognizes only Abbas' new government in the West Bank as legitimate in the Palestinian territories. But Foreign Secretary David Miliband acknowledged the "crucial role" Hamas leaders played.

Haniyeh refuses to accept his dismissal last month as prime minister. He wrapped Johnston in a Palestinian flag after their news conference and then sat down with him for breakfast.

Johnston, who had followed events by radio, thanked people round the world and colleagues for their support. His family said yesterday they were "overjoyed" after a "living nightmare".

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed it as a "great relief".

Source: China Daily/agencies



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