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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Hamas role in Johnston's release
By Martin Asser
BBC News

Alan Johnston after his release
Alan Johnston moments after his release into the hands of Hamas
Looking thinner and a little older, but with his characteristic self-effacing grin visible through the scrum of Hamas gunmen and journalists, Alan Johnston emerged from the mortal danger of his abduction.

The BBC correspondent was freed after 16 weeks of imprisonment in the Sabra neighbourhood of Gaza city, held by members of a much-feared family known for lawless behaviour with a dash of extremist Islam.

In the words of their captive, they were not interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they wanted to target Britain in the name of a global holy war.

Alan quickly gave a series of press statements, showing incredible professionalism after such an ordeal.

He disclosed how he had been held by the only group in Gaza thought to have a Jihadist character, and who were capable of doing the unthinkable to their captive.

It was like being buried alive. I felt removed from world. It was occasionally terrifying, being held by people who were dangerous and unpredictable
Alan Johnston
"On the first day the leader of the group came in and told me I would not be killed or tortured," he told BBC television.

But soon afterwards he said he was hooded and handcuffed and dragged out into the night by his captors, an experience which raised fears which stayed with him for the rest of his incarceration.

"It was like being buried alive. I felt removed from world. It was occasionally terrifying, being held by people who were dangerous and unpredictable," he said.

Splinter group

Alan Johnston did not name his captors, though he clearly knew who they were.

The family is called the Dogmush, and the branch of the clan which held him styled itself as the "Army of Islam", under the command of Mumtaz Dogmush.

This tiny armed faction had in the past thrown its lot in with Hamas, the radical Islamist movement which won power in Palestinian parliament elections in 2006 beating its rivals, the secular nationalist Fatah movement.

ARMY OF ISLAM FACTS
Small, Islamist armed group operating in Gaza
Splinter group of the Popular Resistance Committees
Seeks liberation of Palestine and an Islamic state
Influenced by, but not affiliated with, al-Qaeda
Led by Mumtaz Dugmush, also known as Abu Muhammad, a member of a powerful clan
One of three groups allegedly holding captured Israeli soldier Cpl Gilad Shalit
But when the Army of Islam captured Alan, it was at loggerheads with both groups.

It appeared to be taking advantage of the massive upheaval that eventually saw Hamas take-over Gaza by force from pro-Fatah Palestinian Authority security forces in mid-June 2007.

There seemed to be nothing that the warring factions could do to free Alan, despite a world-wide campaign to put pressure on the Gaza authorities to achieve this aim.

Fortunately for Alan, when Hamas took control in Gaza the rules of the game changed.

Hamas's priority is to restore law and order to the Gaza Strip, and one the first items on that agenda was to get Alan Johnston freed.

The group's Executive Forces, a kind of irregular police force in Gaza, and its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, deployed in the Dogmush neighbourhood.

It is a relief all round that the pro-Hamas forces did not resort to a military solution, which could have endangered the lives of Alan Johnston, as well as captors, rescuers and bystanders
Up to five members of the clan were detained in the last few days. There are reports that water and electricity were cut off in some streets.

Calls also came from senior members of the family from different branches to free Alan.

It is a relief all round that the pro-Hamas forces did not resort to a military solution, which could have endangered the lives of Alan Johnston, as well as captors, rescuers and bystanders.

The captors were clearly afraid of such a possibility. At one point they dressed Alan in what appeared to be an explosives belt, of the type used by suicide bombers, which they said would be detonated if they were attacked.

Friend

The final details of Alan's release have not been made clear.

At his right-hand side when he came out of a building that presumably had been where he was handed over was his friend and BBC Gaza bureau colleague Fayed Abu Shammala.

Fayed and a group of Hamas gunmen guided Alan through the throng to a car, and they drove straight to the house of former Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

There he held a press conference with Mr Haniya and another Hamas leader, former Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahhar, who was reported to have taken a lead in efforts to free him.

Mr Zahhar hailed it as part of Hamas's efforts to extend security to all in Gaza "without fear" and so that journalists could be free to work objectively.

He insisted no deal had been done with Alan's captors - who had been calling for the release of prisoners held in the UK and Jordan.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
First pictures of Alan Johnston's release





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