Aug 27, 2006
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Militants in the Gaza Strip released two kidnapped journalists from the American Fox News Channel on 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, were in a hotel in the Palestinian coastal strip after two weeks of captivity.
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. The United States had rejected the demand.
"I am really fine, healthy, in good shape and so happy to be free," Centanni told the Fox Channel.
Centanni recalled the trauma of the ordeal, being held at one stage in a garage, and said he and Wiig were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint.
"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 hugged colleagues inside the hotel lobby in Gaza before running up the stairs, Fox News footage showed.
The two reporters were seized on August 14 while working on a story in Gaza City. Their abduction was one of the longest-lasting of foreigners in Gaza in years.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the militant Hamas movement said the kidnappers had nothing to do with al Qaeda nor any known Palestinian groups.
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.
No arrests have been made. Palestinian officials from Hamas have previously suggested they were in contact with the kidnappers via third parties in Gaza. Hamas and other militant groups had condemned the abduction.
In the videotape released earlier on 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 Fox senior vice president, said he was not aware of any conditions agreed for the release of the reporters, although the video appeared to play a factor.
"I'm not sure about the reliability of what was said on that video," Moody said on the Fox Channel.
The Holy Jihad Brigades claimed responsibility on Wednesday for the kidnapping and warned the United States to free Muslim prisoners to prevent the two captives facing unspecified consequences. That deadline expired on Saturday.
The United States said it would not make "concessions to terrorists".
A statement from the captors before the men were freed had said the two journalists had to choose either Islam, a tax imposed on non-Muslims to be paid to a Muslim ruler, or war.
"They chose Islam and that is a gift God gives those whom he chooses," the statement said.
Previous kidnappings of foreigners usually ended after a few hours, or at most a few days, of captivity.
(Additional reporting by Peter Cooney in Washington)