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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 August 2006, 22:29 GMT 23:29 UK
Seized journalists freed in Gaza
Olaf Wiig hugging man, alongside his wife Anita McNaught
The men were seen hugging colleagues in the hotel lobby

Two foreign journalists working for US organisation Fox News in Gaza have been released by their kidnappers after nearly two weeks in captivity.

American Steve Centanni and New Zealander Olaf Wiig were dropped off at a Gaza City beach-front hotel.

Mr Centanni said they had been forced at gunpoint to say on video that they had converted to Islam.

Both men appealed to other journalists not to let their experience discourage them from working in the Gaza Strip.

Over the past two years, a number of foreigners have been kidnapped in Gaza.

All have been freed unharmed but the Fox crew's abduction was one of the longest in Gaza in years.

Their captors had issued a Saturday deadline for the US to agree to their demand for the release of "Muslim prisoners" in America - a demand rejected by Washington.

Forced statement

The pair were seized from their vehicle near the Palestinian security services' headquarters on 14 August, and held by a previously unknown group calling themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades.

I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza
Steve Centanni

Mr Centanni told Fox News the two had been forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.

"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," he said by telephone from Gaza City.

In a video released by the captors on Sunday, the journalists are shown reading haltingly from prepared statements in which they criticise Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US President George W Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are accused in the statement of fanning the flames of anger in the Muslim world.

'Story must be told'

First footage of the pair after they were dropped off at Gaza's Beach Hotel showed them hugging colleagues inside the hotel lobby before running up the stairs.

(left to right) Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig
The pair later appeared at a news conference alongside Mr Haniya

The pair later appeared at a brief news conference alongside Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in which they spoke of their joy at being free and concerns that their abduction might deter other foreign journalists from reporting in Gaza.

"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 kind-hearted," Mr Centanni said.

"The world needs to know more about them. Don't be discouraged."

Mr Wiig also urged journalists not to be put off, saying that "would be a great tragedy for the people of Gaza".

After the news conference the men travelled to the Erez border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip and crossed into Israel.

'A honey day'

Mr Wiig's wife, former BBC News presenter Anita McNaught, who was also at the news conference, thanked Palestinian officials and Fox News for their efforts in getting the men released.

She had been prominent in calling for the men's release and met Mr Haniya to discuss the kidnappings.

Mr Centanni's brother Ken said the family was overjoyed after he called him in California with news of the release. "It was the best phone call I've ever had," he added.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark thanked "the Palestinian authorities" for their "wholehearted support and hard work" in freeing Mr Wiig and his colleague.

Mr Wiig's father Roger said: "There is an Arabic saying - one day honey, the next onion. This is a honey day, it really is."

Deadline passes for Gaza hostages
26 Aug 06 |  Middle East
Seized Gaza journalists in video
23 Aug 06 |  Middle East
Gaza hunt for seized journalists
15 Aug 06 |  Middle East

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