Text size

Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal said Wednesday the freeing of the British Broadcasting Corporation journalist showed that his movement had brought order to the Gaza Strip by seizing power in the territory last month.

BBC reporter Alan Johnston, freed early Wednesday after being in captivity in the Gaza Strip since March 12, told a Jerusalem press conference later in the day that Hamas is to thank for securing his release.

"We have been able to close this chapter which has harmed the image of our people greatly. The efforts by Hamas have produced the freedom of Alan Johnston," Meshal told Reuters by telephone from Syria.

Referring to his secular Palestinian rivals Fatah, he said, "It showed the difference between the era in which a group used to encourage and commit security anarchy and chaos and the current situation in which Hamas is seeking to stabilize security," said Meshal.

"I'm pretty sure that if Hamas hadn't come in and turned the heat on, I'd still be in that room," Johnston said.

"Hamas has a huge law and order agenda," he said. Although the Islamic militant movement was controversial internationally, he said, it "is better at keeping law and order than many would agree. And God knows Gaza needs law and order."

But a senior aide to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas played down Hamas' role in the release, saying that it was "a movie" set up by Hamas, who then took credit for securing his freedom.

Yasser Abed Rabbo said that Hamas' release of the Briton, held in Gaza for nearly four months in the custody of militant group Army of Islam, had been staged, as the two groups were in league with each other. He said Hamas staged the rescue in order to "appear as if [Hamas] respects international law."

"We're watching a movie, where the thieves in Gaza fall out and one of them claims to be honest and brave, and the other is the bad guy. This Hamas game fools no one," Rabbo said.

Johnston, a native of Scotland who reported from Gaza for the BBC for three years, was snatched from a Gaza City street by masked gunmen four months ago, shoved into a car and spirited away.

Johnston was the last in a string of foreigners kidnapped in Gaza - though his time in captivity was by far the longest - and he said he had often envisioned being kidnapped himself.

"It was a vaguely surreal experience, as if I'd lived it before, because I'd imagined it so many times, and there I was, before I knew it, on my back in the back seat with a hood over my head," Johnston said at a press conference at Britain's Jerusalem consulate, where reporters greeted him with applause.

That night, Johnston said, he feared he was about to die.

"At 2 A.M., the gunmen's leader appeared in the doorway, his face concealed behind a red-and-white checkered headscarf, and told him he wouldn't be hurt, Johnston recounted. But he wasn't sure whether to believe him, and not long afterward, he said, "They woke me up, and put a hood over my head again, and handcuffed me, and took me out into the night, and of course you really wonder how that might end."

Johnston was released before dawn Wednesday in a murky deal between Gaza's Hamas rulers and his kidnappers from the Army of Islam - a group inspired by Al-Qaida and run by one of Gaza's most notorious and heavily armed crime families, the Doghmush clan.

During his captivity, the world saw Johnston only twice, in two chilling videos his captors made and posted on the Internet. In the first, Johnston condemned Britain, Israel, and the U.S. In the second, Johnston was shown wearing an explosive belt that he said would be detonated should anyone mount a military operation to free him. On Wednesday, he said he had been forced to read a prepared script, and that he didn't know if the belt was real.

"To be honest, they hold all the cards in that situation, those guys, and I just decided that nobody takes these kind of videos very seriously," he said.

For one 24-hour period he was chained to the wall.

Johnston spent most of his time in captivity with 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," Johnston told BBC Radio.

At one point, Johnston said, the guard invited him to watch television, and he saw his father giving a press conference calling for his release.

The Army of Islam was also one of the groups responsible for capturing Israel Defense Forces soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a year ago. Shalit remains captive in Gaza, but Johnston said he heard no mention of the soldier. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert released a statement welcoming Johnston's release and calling for freedom for the soldier as well.

While Johnston was in captivity, Gaza erupted into a fierce internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas that ended with Hamas' takeover of the entire coastal territory in mid-June. Johnston described listening to the battle raging outside his cell.

The Hamas victory made his captors noticeably nervous, he said.

Johnston said his kidnappers weren't violent until the final hours of his captivity, after they struck a deal with Hamas for his release. They burst into his room and told him to get dressed, he said, and one of the men said, "You're going to Britain."

What followed, Johnston told BBC radio, was a terrible, highly charged ride into the center of Gaza as his captors drove through Hamas roadblocks to turn him over.

"At that point, the kidnappers were wild-eyed and hysterical," he said at the Jerusalem press conference. "They started having a go at me. They were slamming my head," he said.

After his release, gaunt but smiling, Johnston was immediately surrounded by armed men from Hamas and hustled off to a news conference with Ismail Haniyeh, the deposed prime minister who now heads the Hamas regime in Gaza. Accompanied by British diplomats, he then left Gaza and traveled to Jerusalem.

Johnston told the BBC that it was indescribably good to be out.

"It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," he said.

Johnston said he had no immediate plans to return to Gaza.

"I spent three years covering Gaza as a correspondent and I spent four months in solitary confinement there, and I feel - enough already with Gaza. You know, may be I'll go back when it's a member of the EU," he told reporters.

Late on Wednesday, Johnston won an Amnesty International award for human rights reporting and raising public awareness with his radio work 'Dispatches from Gaza'.

The annual award was announced on BBC television.