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     News: BBC reporter Alan Johnston freed in Gaza

    Latest NewsBBC reporter Alan Johnston freed in Gaza
    Guardian Unlimited

    By Conal Urquhart in Gaza City

    BBC journalist Alan Johnston (centre) shown after his release. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty images

    Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held hostage in the Gaza Strip since March, was handed over to Hamas officials by his Islamist captors early this morning, July 4th.

    The 45-year-old Briton, looking pale and frail, was taken to the offices of the disputed Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in Gaza City. A witness said he was well, but had lost a lot of weight.

    The BBC confirmed Mr Johnston had been freed by his kidnappers.

    He is expected to leave Gaza for Israel as soon as possible. According to a Foreign Office advance plan, he will receive medical attention in Jerusalem before decisions are made about when he will return home to Britain.

    Speaking to BBC News 24 after his release, Mr Johnston said: "It's the most fantastic thing to be free."

    He described his 16 weeks of captivity as "appalling".

    "It became almost hard to imagine normal life again," he said. "Now it really is over and it is indescribably good to be out."

    Mr Johnston, the only western correspondent working full-time in Gaza, went missing on March 12. His captors later declared themselves to be the Army of Islam, an al-Qaida-inspired group with links to one of Gaza's powerful clans. Concern grew last month when the group issued a video of Mr Johnston in what appeared to be a vest packed with explosives and threatened to kill the reporter if ...

    there was an attempt to free him.

    His release comes after Hamas security forces surrounded a group of buildings in Gaza City yesterday, where he was believed to have been held. Hamas had issued several ultimatums to his captors, warning that force could be used to secure his freedom.

    From 5.30am yesterday, members of the Hamas police, the Executive Force, took over the rooftops of high rise apartment blocks that overlook the stronghold of the Dogmush family in the Sabra district of Gaza City. The activity was considered as part of a policy to increase pressure on the kidnappers.

    The forces closed off all streets in the area and checked cars and individuals who wanted to leave the area. There was sporadic shooting throughout the day and one passerby was shot dead in crossfire.

    The Hamas force has detained several members of the Dogmush family at roadblocks while Dogmush gunmen abducted 10 students of the Islamic University from their residence in the Sabra area.

    The Dogmush family is a large clan which has several groups, one of which, under Mumtaz Dogmush, has been involved in several kidnappings, including that of Mr Johnston. The Army of Islam was involved in the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit more than a year ago, although it was sidelined soon afterwards.

    As darkness fell last night, dozens of Hamas gunmen in black masks moved closer to the Dogmush compound, a mixture of apartment blocks and commercial premises.

    The breakthrough was said to have come after pressure from another militant group, the Popular Resistance Committees, who visited the Mumtaz Dogmush to help negotiate a final agreement.

    Since Hamas has taken control of Gaza, its leaders have repeated their intention to free Mr Johnston, to demonstrate that they can provide better security in Gaza than the forces of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah which they routed in street battles two weeks ago.

    The leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said the freeing of Mr Johnston showed his movement had brought order to the Gaza Strip.

    "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," Mr Meshaal told the Reuters agency by telephone from Syria.

    Simon Wilson, the bureau chief of the BBC, said he believed that the buildup of forces was a tactic to increase pressure on the kidnappers rather than a prelude to a rescue attempt. "We have repeatedly said that we do not want military action to free Alan," he said.

    At a press conference in Gaza City earlier, Mr Haniyeh said that Hamas hoped to end Mr Johnston's captivity peacefully but retained other options. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, accused Mr Johnston's captors of smearing the Palestinian people's reputation.

    In London, no immediate comment was available from the Foreign Office. More than a dozen journalists and foreign aid workers have been kidnapped in Gaza in recent months, but Mr Johnston was held longer than others.

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    The BBC
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