July 4, 2007 — -- After 16 agonizing weeks, it is over. Alan Johnston, the BBC's Gaza correspondent is free.
Amid chaotic scenes in Gaza last night he was handed over to officials of Hamas in Gaza City. His kidnappers, from the self-styled Army of Islam, had been persuaded to give him up.
During the last few days, the pressure had been turned up on the shadowy group who had kidnapped Johnston March 12 as he left the BBC office in Gaza. Hamas had made it clear they wanted him freed.
Yesterday a highly respected Muslim cleric in Gaza issued a fatwa, demanding the British journalist's release. Hamas increased its military presence outside the compound where he was being held. Armed men from the Hamas Executive Force stepped up patrols and vehicle checks. Snipers took up positions on high buildings in the area. The tactics worked, and in the early hours of this morning, Johnston was driven from his hideout and delivered into the hands of Hamas leaders.
He looked pale but was able to talk to waiting journalists and soon began to give a series of telephone interviews to his colleagues at the BBC and to other broadcasters. At a press conference with the Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, Johnston expressed his relief:
"The last 16 weeks, of course, were just the very worst, you can imagine, of my life. It was like being buried alive really, removed from the world and occasionally terrifying," Johnston said.
He described the conditions in which he was kept, and spoke of the occasional threats made against him. On the first night of his detention, he had a hood placed over his head and was led outside, fearing he was about to be killed.
After a breakfast with other Hamas leaders, he was taken by British consular officials to the Erez Crossing point and into Israel. He is expected in Jerusalem for a medical checkup, and it is assumed the journalist will fly home to his native Scotland to be with his family.
Hamas officials were quick to claim the credit for his release. Since taking over the Gaza Strip the group has been keen to enforce the rule of law and used last night's dramatic events to underline its rebranding as the Palestinian party of security and order.