Militants in the Gaza Strip freed two kidnapped journalists from the American Fox News Channel Sunday after forcing them at gunpoint to say in a videotape they had converted to Islam.
Correspondent Steve Centanni, a 60-year-old American, and New Zealand-born cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, looked happy but tired after two weeks of captivity in the Palestinian coastal strip.
A previously unknown group called the Holy Jihad Brigades had made a sweeping demand for the United States to free Muslim prisoners in exchange for the release of the men.
"I am really fine, healthy, in good shape and so happy to be free," Centanni told the Fox Channel.
He said that he and Wiig had been forced at gunpoint to say they were converting to Islam.
"I'm thinking: 'Oh God, a remote warehouse with a big noisy generator, they could simply shoot me in the head and nobody would hear it'," Centanni said.
"I have the highest respect for Islam... 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."
The men had an emotional reunion with colleagues inside a Gaza hotel, where they later met Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Hamas movement.
In a short news conference, both men said they hoped their kidnapping would not scare the foreign media away from Gaza. "That would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine, and especially for the people of Gaza," said Wiig.
The two journalists later crossed into Israel at the Erez border terminal.
They were seized on August 14 while working on a story in Gaza City. Theirs was one of the longest abductions of foreigners in Gaza in years.
Haniyeh said the kidnappers had nothing to do with al-Qaida or any known Palestinian groups. Hamas and other militant groups had condemned the abduction.
Videos of the captives released by the militants had borne all the hallmarks of hostage tapes shot by insurgents in Iraq.
"These are young men who carried out the action out of private beliefs," Haniyeh told reporters.
Officials said no arrests had been made. Palestinian officials from Hamas had previously suggested they were in contact with the kidnappers via third parties in Gaza.
In videotape released earlier Sunday, Centanni and Wiig were shown separately sitting cross-legged, reading statements announcing that they had converted to Islam. At times in the video they were wearing long Arab robes.
"I changed my name to Khaled. I have embraced Islam and say the word 'Allah,'" Centanni said.
John Moody, a senior vice-president of Fox, said he was not aware of any conditions agreed for the release of the reporters, although the video appeared to be a factor.
(China Daily August 28, 2006)