Fox journalists freed in Gaza

Pair were forced to embrace Islam on videotape

August 28, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Two Fox News journalists were freed in good condition yesterday after being held by kidnappers in the Gaza Strip for nearly two weeks, the longest abduction of foreigners in the chaotic Palestinian enclave in recent years.

Correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig were transferred to a hotel in Gaza City by Palestinian security officers after days of efforts by Palestinian leaders to get them released.

Palestinian officials did not say what assurances, if any, had been made to the captors, a previously unknown group calling itself Holy Jihad Brigades, to win the journalists' release.

Centanni, 60, appeared tearful but healthy upon arriving at the seafront Beach Hotel in Gaza City. He told the Fox network that he and Wiig had been blindfolded, bound and handled roughly by the kidnappers after being taken Aug. 14 and later were forced at gunpoint to declare on videotape that they had converted to Islam.

Less than two hours before Centanni and Wiig were released, the kidnappers released a videotape of the two men wearing tan Arab-style caftans and making the statements about having adopted Islam.

Centanni also read a written statement condemning U.S. policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Wiig, also reading from notes, said: "People ask why they hate us so, but then they don't wait for the answer. It is Apache helicopters firing Hellfire missiles made in America that kill the residents of Gaza."

"I'm emotional because I'm so happy to be out," Centanni told his network on air by telephone shortly after being freed. "There were times when I thought that, you know, `I'm dead.' And now I'm not. And so, thank God."

Centanni, an American correspondent based in Washington, and Wiig, 36, a freelance cameraman from New Zealand, were taken across the border to Israel a few hours later.

The two were seized in Gaza City by masked gunmen who blocked their car and forced them into another vehicle. There was no word about them for more than a week, until Centanni and Wiig appeared in a videotape Wednesday along with a statement by the captors demanding the release of all Muslims held by the United States within 72 hours.

The U.S. government rejected the demand, and the deadline passed Saturday without further word from the kidnappers.

Yesterday, Palestinian officials were tight-lipped about the steps that led up to the journalists' release.

John Moody, Fox's senior vice president for news editorial, said in a network broadcast that "no conditions that we're aware of" were attached to the release of the journalists, although the hostages' video statements before they were freed suggested that the declarations were part of the arrangement to let them go.

For the previous two days, Palestinian officials had signaled progress in efforts to broker the men's release through unspecified intermediaries. Yesterday, the Popular Resistance Committees, an armed group that has fired many of the Kassam rockets launched into southern Israel, said it had acted as a go-between.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the kidnappers had acted on their own and not as part of any established Palestinian faction or outside network such as al-Qaida. But he declined to offer more details.

Palestinian authorities sidestepped questions over whether they would seek to prosecute the kidnappers.

The unusual length of the abduction, and the fact that the captors' central demand focused on Muslim prisoners in U.S jails, left many observers puzzled over the kidnappers' goals, affiliations and eventual plans.

The Hamas-led Palestinian government, facing plenty of troubles because of international aid cuts and renewed hostilities with Israel, appeared eager to end the hostage episode and had urged the journalists' release.

The abduction case stood out even amid the staggering disorder of the Gaza Strip, where a dozen or so foreigners, including journalists, have been kidnapped during the past year.

In most of those cases, captives have been released within a few hours. Most times, kidnappers have taken hostages to demand jobs in the Palestinian security forces or to settle a score on behalf of one clan or armed faction versus another. But that was apparently not the case this time.

Centanni told Fox News that the kidnappers placed hoods over their heads and bound their wrists tightly with plastic ties before taking them to a garage, where they lay face down on a dirt-covered concrete floor. A generator rumbled noisily in the background, Centanni said, prompting him to worry that the captors could shoot the men without being heard.

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, and don't get me wrong here, 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 the guns and we didn't know what the hell was going on," Centanni said.

Centanni and Wiig told a news conference in Gaza City that they hoped the abduction would not deter journalists from going to Gaza to report on conditions there. Palestinians and officials are generally eager to tell the world their side of the story and for the most part have welcomed foreign journalists.

Wiig said it would be a "great tragedy for the people of Gaza'" if journalists stayed away, even though reporting there is difficult and at times dangerous. Earlier yesterday, an Israeli airstrike near Gaza City hit an armored vehicle owned by the Reuters news agency, injuring two Palestinian journalists.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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