British reporter Alan Johnston was freed Wednesday after nearly four months in captivity in the Gaza Strip, saying it was "fantastic" to be free after an "appalling" ordeal in which his life was threatened. The British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent was released under unclear terms after Hamas stepped up the pressure on his captors, a group called the Army of Islam.
At a news conference with Hamas officials, Johnston described his time in captivity as "occasionally terrifying." "The last 16 weeks, of course, were just the very worst you can imagine of my life, like being buried alive, really, removed from the world," he said, according to the AP.
His kidnappers, he said, "did threaten my life a number of times in various ways."
Johnston recounted how he was chained up for 24 hours at one point, moved twice during his captivity and was hit "a bit" in the last half hour before he was freed. Earlier, he told the BBC in a telephone interview that it was "indescribably good to be out" after his "appalling" captivity. "It is just the most fantastic thing to be free," he said.
A senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, denied that Hamas acted in a bid to improve its ties with the West. "We didn't work to receive favors from the British government. We did this because of humanitarian concern, and to achieve a government aim to extend security to all without fear," Zahar said.
Johnston told the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite news network by phone that he was in good health despite the "immense" psychological pressure, and expressed special gratitude to Hamas and the former Palestinian unity government leader, Isma'il Haniyeh.
Asked if he would return to Gaza, which he had covered for three years, Johnston replied, "After many months of kidnapping, I think I need a break." Johnston said his kidnappers "seemed very comfortable and secure in their operation until ... it became clear that Hamas would be in control."
"If it hadn't been for that real serious Hamas pressure, that commitment to tidying up Gaza's many, many security problems, then I might have been in that room for a lot longer," he told the news conference.
Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman, said Johnston's captors had responded positively to recent efforts by tribal and religious leaders to end Johnston's ordeal. Taha said the Army of Islam would not be dismantled or disarmed in return for freeing the reporter. Army of Islam spokesman Abu Khatab al-Maqdisi, who had been arrested by Hamas as a potentially valuable bargaining chip earlier this week, said his faction would work together with Hamas.