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Ex-hostage John McCarthy thanks man who freed him

By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News

It took nearly 20 years, but former British hostage in Lebanon John McCarthy has finally had a chance to thank the negotiator who helped to free him.

Giandomenico Picco and John McCarthy
John McCarthy (right) was nervous and excited to meet Giandomenico Picco

It came during a recording of a programme for BBC Radio 4, examining the psychology and history of hostage negotiation.

John McCarthy travelled to New York for the encounter with Italian former UN official Giandomenico Picco, who effectively had to allow himself to be abducted from the streets of Beirut to meet the Islamic Jihad kidnappers face to face.

He did this a total of nine times, achieving the release of 11 Western hostages, and 91 Lebanese who had been detained by the Israelis in southern Lebanon.

"It was actually very moving," says McCarthy, describing the meeting.

"I was sitting in a little studio in the BBC office in New York. I was very nervous before he arrived and very excited.

"I had realised, having read his book, that he had met the kidnap leader many times and put himself in a situation which I knew, from being there myself, is utterly terrifying. I wanted to say thank you and to learn what it had been like for him. I was holding my breath."

FIND OUT MORE...
Listen to Thank You For My Freedom at 2000 BST on Radio 4, or at 1700 BST on Sunday 2 May
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In the programme, Mr Picco describes very clearly what went through his head when he went to a rendezvous in a Shia neighbourhood of Beirut, for the first time.

"The car stopped and there was nobody around and these guys came from behind and said, 'Don't look, don't turn around', and then they pushed me in on the back seat," Mr Picco remembers.

"It was then that I really thought about my son. Because then, as a father, you debate how much you owe to your family and how much you owe to the larger humanity.

"I remember extremely well my thoughts at that time… I said, 'Yes you have chosen to do this, OK so you go ahead, but your son didn't ask you to do this. If something goes wrong, he pays for it as much as you do, maybe more'."

When they finally sat face to face, one of his first questions to Abdullah - the name used by the kidnap leader - was whether he himself had children.

Mutual respect

One of the ideas aired in the programme is that the hostage negotiator has to sympathise with the victim, but also to empathise with the kidnapper.

They have to establish a dialogue, says Richard Fenning, chief executive of the consultancy Control Risks - a dialogue that is "based around some form of mutual human respect".

John McCarthy
At the time I was released, I don't think we were so aware that Picco was involved - frankly, I think I was probably slightly in Lala land
John McCarthy

He adds: "Now that may sound contradictory, because they have done something that is extremely distasteful and repugnant but nevertheless, in order for that dialogue to be sustained there has to be a human emotional dynamic to it."

Mr Picco describes one of his last meetings with Abdullah, which took place in a car, driving through the streets of Beirut at 0200.

Abdullah had brought with him an American hostage, Jesse Turner, whom he was handing back. But first he wanted to talk, and to hold Mr Picco's hand.

It was the sweaty hand of a nervous, possibly terrified man, with whom Mr Picco had established a relationship of trust.

"At some point you need to find a way to communicate, for better or for worse," says Mr Picco.

"That's not diplomacy. What is that? That is who we are."

Phenomenal effort

Mr McCarthy says he found himself welling up with tears when Mr Picco talked about his son, and the price he might have had to pay.

But back in August 1991 at the end of his more than five years in captivity, and for long afterwards, he had no idea of the risks the Italian was taking on behalf of the hostages.

"At the time I was released, I don't think we were so aware that he was involved. Frankly, I think I was probably slightly in Lala land.

"I do remember Terry Anderson, when he was released, particularly thanking Picco, and I was thinking 'Who is this guy?' He had not been particularly on my radar.

"To my shame, I didn't think even to write to the guy and thank him for this phenomenal effort."

He has now made up for that omission.



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