Freed Fox pair tell of kidnap torment before forced conversion to Islam· Journalists speak of relief after Gaza abduction · Palestinian PM denies captors linked to al-Qaida
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem The Guardian, Monday August 28 2006 Two journalists from the American Fox News channel were freed unharmed in Gaza yesterday after being forced at gunpoint to convert to Islam at the end of a two-week kidnapping ordeal.
Hours before their release, the two men appeared in a video, dressed in Arab robes. They announced their conversion and criticised American and British foreign policy in the Middle East.
Steve Centanni, 60, an American correspondent, and his freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, a New Zealander, were later released and dropped off by Palestinian security forces at a hotel in Gaza City. They were then driven to Israel.
"I am so happy to be out," said Centanni. "There were times I thought I was dead, but I'm OK, thank God."
In Gaza, Palestinian officials said they now believed that the kidnappers of the Fox News journalists were militants from one of the many local armed factions and were not linked to al-Qaida's terror network. Last week, the kidnappers said they were from a previously unknown group called the Holy Jihad Brigades.
But Palestinian security officials said the name was a front for local militants and that they had known the identity of the kidnappers. They did not say whether a deal was struck with the kidnappers - whom they did not identify - for the release of the journalists. In the past two years, Palestinian militants have seized more than two dozen foreigners, usually to settle personal scores, but released them unharmed within hours.
Although foreigners have been seized in recent months in Gaza, this hostage-taking incident lasted much longer than any before and appeared more harrowing.
Centanni described how the pair had been dragged from their car at gunpoint in Gaza City two weeks ago. They were blindfolded and had their hands tightly bound behind their backs. "That was just the beginning of our torment," he said.
They were driven to what he thought was a warehouse or garage and made to lie face down on the floor in the darkness. "There was a generator going constantly and I was thinking they could shoot me in the head and nobody would know. But I was also thinking that I was no good to them dead, so I kept my hopes up."
As the days went by, the pair were questioned repeatedly by their kidnappers and had to write about their lives and previous reporting assignments in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Then they forced us to convert to Islam at gunpoint," said Centanni. "I have the highest respect for Islam and learned a lot of very good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had guns and we didn't know what the hell was going on."
"I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover the story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful and kindhearted. The world needs to know more about them."
The interior minister, Said Siyam, said he did not expect other foreign journalists in Gaza to be kidnapped. "In principle, there is a promise that this will not be repeated," he said, declining to elaborate.
Before they left Gaza, the pair briefly met Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister and a member of the ruling Hamas militant group. Mr Haniyeh dismissed suggestions that foreign militants linked to al-Qaida had started operating in the Gaza Strip. "The kidnappers have no link to al-Qaida or any other organisation or faction," he said.
In previous Gaza abductions, gunmen have demanded jobs or have been motivated by local rivalries. In this case, however, the only demand made by the kidnappers was for the United States to release all Muslim prisoners from its jails. They gave a 72-hour deadline, which expired on Saturday.
About this articleClose This article appeared in the Guardian on Monday August 28 2006 on p14 of the Top stories section. It was last updated at 10:18 on January 08 2008.