BBC Gaza reporter tells of hostage ordeal

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LONDON -- Freed BBC correspondent Alan Johnston called his ordeal the worst time of his life and said it was like "being buried alive," following his release in the early hours of Wednesday morning, 114 days after he was kidnapped in Gaza.

The reporter, who was handed over to Hamas officials in the region by his kidnappers, an Islamist group known as the Army of Islam, said he had been told at the beginning of his ordeal that he would not be tortured or killed, but said there were times in his captivity when "it was not something I was completely convinced about."

Johnston is said to be in good health but said his capture had been an "appalling" period that was a "grim, and at times, terrifying ordeal" and said he had been kept in a tiny cell without sunlight for part of his capture. His spirits had been boosted, however, when his captives gave him a radio and he was able to hear of the BBC campaign to secure his release.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 news program "Today," Wednesday morning, the reporter, who was taken after his release to the British Consulate in Jerusalem, thanked all the people who had worked towards his release.

"I am hugely grateful to all the people -- an amazing number of people that worked on the Palestinian side, the British government, the BBC from top to bottom, and a huge amount of support from BBC listeners and viewers," he told interviewer Jim Naughtie.

"I had a radio almost throughout, and was able to follow all the extraordinary level of support and interest in my case, and it was a huge psychological boost. I am immensely grateful. It's just the most fantastic thing to be free."

Johnston said his captors had been "often rude and unpleasant" and that he had been subject to violence in the last hours of his capture.

"They did threaten my life, really, a number of times in various ways," he said.

Even when he was told of plans for his release, he feared that he was going to be handed to new kidnappers, possibly for ransom.

"When they let me out of the car, there were gunmen around and so on and I thought: 'No, no these are more kidnappers,' but then I saw [BBC reporter] Fayed Abu Shammala who I'd worked with for three years and it was the most fantastic moment, and I really only then, only then believed it was over."

BBC director general Mark Thompson said Johnston's release was fantastic news for the corporation.

"It's a fantastic moment, a fantastic day," Thompson told BBC News," but he conceded that BBC reporters in such areas as Baghdad and Afghanistan still faced considerable risk.

"In the BBC we have colleagues facing enormous risks bringing us the news, there is a bigger story here about how dangerous journalism has become," the director general said.

Thompson stressed that Johnston had been aware of the risks of kidnapping in Gaza, where he was the sole remaining Western reporter in the territory when he was taken.

"Ironically, Alan wrote our protocol on kidnapping in Gaza and we knew there were risks," he said, adding that the pubcaster thought the risks could be managed because other abductions in the area had been short-lived.

"Obviously we will go back to look at what happened and we will go back and make sure there were no mistakes," Thompson said. "But we cannot mitigate the risks to zero without limiting the news."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown also welcomed Johnston's release.

"The whole country will welcome the news that Alan Johnston, a tireless reporter, is now free and I want to thank everyone involved, Brown told the House of Commons in his first outing at Prime Minister's Question Time after taking over from Tony Blair last week.
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