Kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston released after 114 days

Kidnapped journalist Alan Johnston was released today after a 114-day ordeal.

The BBC reporter, who was held in Gaza by a group calling itself the Army of Islam, said he felt “the most unimaginable relief” after being freed in the early hours of this morning.

“It’s just the most fantastic thing to be free,” Mr Johnston, 45, told the BBC.

“It was an appalling experience, being kidnapped, occasionally quite terrifying and I didn’t know when it was going to end.

“It became hard to imagine normal life. I dreamed several times of being free but always woke up in that room. It’s incredibly good to be out.”

Hamas had demanded Johnston’s freedom since it seized control of Gaza last month.

Yesterday, Hamas gunmen took positions around the stronghold of the Army of Islam, stepping up the pressure to secure his release.

Hamas had said it knew where to find him but had not raided the hideout for fear he would be harmed.

But yesterday, members of Hamas’s 6,000-strong militia moved on to rooftops of high-rise buildings and deployed gunmen in streets in the Gaza City neighbourhood inhabited by the Doghmush clan. The large, heavily armed family leads the Army of Islam.

Within hours, Alan Johnston was free.

His parents Graham and Margaret Johnston said they were “absolutely overjoyed” that the “living nightmare” was over.

His father said he had a very brief telephone conversation with his son.

Johnston Snr, speaking outside his home in Lochgoilhead, Argyll, said: “All he said was ‘hello dad’, and I said ‘hello son. How are you? Are you all right?’

“He said ‘I am 100%’ and then the phone was cut. That’s all we’ve heard from him so far.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “I welcome the good news of Alan Johnston’s release. This will come as a great relief to his family and friends and all those who have worked to see him freed.”

Mr Johnston was the only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza and had been working there for three years when he went missing on March 12.

After his release he told a press conference in Gaza: “It’s hard to believe that I’m not going to wake up in a minute in that room again.”

Mr Johnston said he had been able to listen to the radio after his first two weeks in captivity and heard messages of support.

“It gave me a psychological boost,” he added.

“It was amazing to be lying in solitary confinement and hear people from Nigeria, Malaysia or friends from London, colleagues sending messages of support.”

At the press conference, Mr Johnston said his kidnappers had initially told him they did not intend to kill or torture him but at 3am on the first night they covered his face with a hood and handcuffed him.

He added: “They were often rude and unpleasant. They did threaten my life a number of times. There was one 24 hour period when they seemed to get very angry and chained me up but that only lasted 24 hours.

“They were even occasionally friendly. One of the guards would let me go through and watch his television. But it was very grim.

“It was like being buried alive and removed from the world, in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable.”

He said there was no violence towards him until the last half hour of his captivity.

He said his kidnappers had become anxious when Hamas took over the region’s security a few weeks ago.

Mr Johnston said he had managed to speak to his father.

Speaking of his family, who live in Scotland, he said: “It’s so good, the thought that I will be with them soon.”

It was not immediately clear when Mr Johnston would return to the UK.

The reporter told Sky News he would spend a “few days” regaining his strength and having a rest before returning to Scotland.

He said: “I think three years of Gaza as a correspondent followed by four months of kidnap in Gaza is probably more Gaza than most people need in their lives and I do not think I will be going back for some time.”

His parents said they were still planning to travel to London to receive an award on his behalf tonight.

At about 5.45am today a Foreign Office spokesperson in London said: “I’m delighted to confirm that Alan Johnston is now in the care of officials from the British Consulate General in Jerusalem.

“Our top priority will be to ensure he is in good health and reunited with his family as soon as possible.”

In a statement, the BBC said: “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 – and everyone around the world who has shown their support for him over the past 114 days.

“We thank all of those who worked tirelessly – here and in the wider Middle East – to secure his freedom.”

Former hostage Terry Waite advised Mr Johnston to “take time out” to come to terms with his ordeal.

Mr Waite, who spent 1,760 days in captivity in Lebanon until November 1991, said: “I heard the news in the middle of the night, I was just delighted.”

He said that Mr Johnston would initially feel very excited but added: “The reaction sometimes sets in a little later later, he will do well just to take time out, to withdraw for a while.”

More than 180,000 people signed an online petition calling for his immediate release which was organised by the BBC.

Mr Johnston Snr said the local community in Lochgoilhead had provided great support throughout the ordeal.

He said: “The villagers have been amazing.

“We’ve had the vigil every Friday night and the support we’ve had from so many people has really kept us buoyed up and in good spirits.

“We’ve never lost hope that he would be released.

“We know he had many friends in Gaza and he was very popular in Gaza and respected and due to that we felt they can’t do anything to him.”

Mr Johnston said one of the challenges of the past 114 days was watching the videos released by his son’s captors.

He said: “When the first video came out, that was a bit chilling but it is good to see him looking so fit and well.

“Then the next video came out and that was pretty chilling, I was dreading it.

“Then the BBC told us there was a video coming out and he had an explosive device wrapped round him and that was just awful and I dreaded seeing it.

“The next morning we got it and I had butterflies in my stomach but when I saw it the butterflies went away.

“I was so pleased, he looked fit and talked well.”

BBC director general Mark Thompson told Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s a fantastic day, not just for me but for all of Alan’s colleagues in the BBC and of course for his family.

“It’s wonderful news and I can’t really express how incredibly grateful we feel for the wider support from the British public, the public around the world, journalists, Palestinian journalists. It’s been an amazing show of support.”

Mr Thompson defended the decision to keep Johnston based in Gaza, where he was understood to be the only permanent Western correspondent at the time of his kidnap.

“Whenever we have people stationed in dangerous parts of the world… we try incredibly hard to try to assess the risk,” said Mr Thompson.

“Gaza, clearly, at the time when Alan was taken was a potentially dangerous place and clearly there was a possibility of abduction. However, at the time, all the previous abductions of Westerners in Gaza had lasted in some cases literally a matter of minutes, never more than a few days.

“The assessment at the time, based on evidence and with our head of security in the field visiting Gaza regularly, was that the risks were acceptable.

“Alan himself, ironically, wrote our protocol on abduction in Gaza. The procedures we went through after he was abducted were written by him.

“Clearly, had we known that this group were going to engage in a different kind of kidnap, we would have taken a different decision, but I don’t think we could have known. We will go back and make sure that there were no mistakes made in that.

“But I have to say we can’t mitigate the risks to zero without in the end not being able to report the news… If we tried to reduce the risk to zero, we wouldn’t deploy to Baghdad or Afghanistan or many other parts of the world.

“Our tradition in this organisation is, as an organisation, all of us are sometimes prepared to take risks to make sure the public around the world can have the news.”

The journalist told Today: “Mostly, I was under the guard of one man, a strange guy who barely spoke to me for days and would just glare at me and fly into rages at tiny things – a door slamming or whatever – and then at other times, once a fortnight, he would come across completely different and friendly, especially if he thought it might be coming to an end, the whole kidnapping.

“He would invite me through and we would watch television in his room, almost as if we were friends – of course we weren’t.

“There was no violence at all towards me doing it, but then last night there was a terrible, highly-charged ride into the centre of Gaza as the kidnappers took me through road-blocks manned by Hamas men who were clearing the way for them.

“Obviously it was tense, but he was just beside himself with anger and he had a go at me and slapped me in the face and so did his mate, the other guard.

“It was a grim, grim ending to it, but he was a dark figure, who I didn’t in any way get to know and couldn’t quite fathom, a shifty man with angry moods.”

Johnston said his “lucky break” during his captivity was getting hold of two radios – first one on which he could only receive news in Arabic, but which allowed him to find out that he had not been forgotten, and then a second which received the English-language service of the World Service.

“I began to realise the extraordinary extent of support that there was,” he said.

“I realised the BBC from the top to the listeners in all corners of the world were coming out for me. You can imagine the extraordinary psychological boost that was.

“I was hearing friends and colleagues giving me messages from people I didn’t know and I really did think that few kidnap victims anywhere in the world have ever been that lucky and I did say to myself ‘If you can’t get through this, getting that kind of extraordinary support, radio messages from friends and colleagues on a daily basis, it won’t be very impressive’.

“It was a tremendous lift and I got that through the whole last three months of the kidnapping.”

Mr Johnston said he wanted to thank everyone who signed the petition for his release, as well as the British Government, the BBC, Palestinian journalists who demonstrated in his support and Hamas.

“I am free, really, because of Hamas, I would say,” he told Today.

He said his experiences had made him reconsider the stress he had caused his family by working in dangerous places.

“The hardest thing for me to deal with was thinking what my folks were going through,” he said.

“They put up with me working in difficult places for a long time. I was so sorry that my activities had finally brought the very worst problems of the world pouring through their very quiet, peaceful lives there on the west coast of Scotland.

“I can’t begin to say how sorry I am that at their age they had to go through this. It really, really made me think about needing to be more careful about what I make them worry about in future.

“It’s going to be so good to see the hills of home again.”

Johnston said his plight had received attention from around the world because he works for the BBC, but that many other journalists were abducted and killed in other countries without the same publicity. He said he was intending to offer his services to highlight the dangers faced by journalists.

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