British reporter Alan Johnston Released After 115 Days in Captivity

Following some 115 days in captivity, British reporter Alan Johnston, looking pale and tired, was released in the Gaza Strip and said it was "fantastic" to be free after an "appalling" ordeal. Johnston told a news conference that he was moved twice during his nearly four months in captivity.
The British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent described his time in captivity as "occasionally quite terrifying" in a telephone interview with the BBC. "It was an appalling experience," he said, speaking from the home of deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza.
"It is indescribably good to be out," he said in a steady and composed voice. "It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," he added, saying he felt as well as could be expected.
"I didn't know where it was going to end," he said, adding that he had endured "an extraordinary level of stress" and psychological pressure. "I probably got out if it as well as I could have."
Johnston was kidnapped by a shadowy, little-known group from a Gaza City street on March 12 and held far longer than any other foreign reporter in Gaza.
After his release, he was taken to the home of Haniyeh in Gaza City's Shati refugee camp. Before entering, Johnston told an Associated Press reporter, "I'm OK, really, I'm OK."
Television footage showed Johnston emerging from a building in Gaza surrounded by a throng of armed Palestinian men and escorted into a waiting car while cameras flashed around him.
Simon Wilson, the BBC's Middle East bureau chief, speaking to BBC News 24 from Jerusalem, said he had spoken to Johnston following his release. "His first thoughts were for others and for what they've done for him."
The BBC also reported Johnston had spoken to his father since his release. A BBC spokesman in London could not confirm details of the terms of the reporter's release.
There was no immediate comment from Johnston's captors, the Army of Islam.
Hamas had demanded Johnston's freedom since it violently seized control of Gaza last month, in an apparent bid to curry favor with the West.
On Tuesday, Hamas gunmen took positions around the Army of Islam's stronghold, stepping up the pressure to secure his release.
Members of Hamas' 6,000-person militia moved onto rooftops of high-rise buildings and deployed gunmen in streets of the Gaza City neighborhood inhabited by the Doghmush clan, the large, heavily armed family that leads the Army of Islam.
In an afternoon exchange of fire, a Palestinian civilian was killed, Hamas said, blaming the Doghmush forces. No other casualties were reported.
"The clocks have begun ticking toward the release of Alan Johnston," said Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad. "The operation of the interior ministry Executive Forces has started, and they are tightening the siege on the people involved in his kidnap."
Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal said Tuesday that security forces "will not spare any efforts to free the British journalist." Hamas radio broadcast a toll free phone number, urging people to call in any information about the case.
On Monday, Hamas arrested the spokesman of the Army of Islam, giving it a potentially valuable bargaining chip in its efforts to release Johnston.
Late Tuesday, the Doghmush clan released nine students loyal to Hamas that they kidnapped earlier in the week. Hamas officials and mediators said the release was meant to pave the way for Johnston's release.
Then four Army of Islam members were freed by Hamas, said Abu Mujahid from the Popular Resistance Committees, the militant group handling the negotiations. The four included the Army of Islam spokesman arrested Monday.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Johnston's captors of smearing the Palestinian people's reputation and of seeking "to prove to the world that we are a group of militias that fight each other to gain personal ends."
The Army of Islam, whose formerly close relations with Hamas have soured, had demanded that Britain first release a radical Islamic cleric with ties to al-Qaida. 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.
The same group was involved in the capture of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized more than a year ago in a raid on an Israeli army post near Gaza.

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