By Beverley Rouse, PA
Published: 04 July 2007
The kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston was freed today after almost four months.
The BBC reporter was released from his captors in Gaza in the early hours of this morning and said he felt "the most unimaginable relief".
A British consular official later said that Mr Johnston had set off in a convoy for Jerusalem in the company of British diplomats.
Mr Johnston was the only Western reporter permanently based in Gaza and had been working there for three years when he went missing on 12 March.
Mr Johnston, 45, told the BBC: "It's just the most fantastic thing to be free. It was an appalling experience, being kidnapped, occasionally quite terrifying and I didn't know when it was going to end.
"It became hard to imagine normal life. I dreamed several times of being free but always woke up in that room. It's incredibly good to be out."
He later told a press conference in Gaza: "It's hard to believe that I'm not going to wake up in a minute in that room again."
Mr Johnston said he had been able to listen to the radio after his first two weeks in captivity and heard messages of support.
"It gave me a psychological boost," he added.
"It was amazing to be lying in solitary confinement and hear people from Nigeria, Malaysia or friends from London, colleagues sending messages of support."
At the press conference, Mr Johnston said his kidnappers had initially told him they did not intend to kill or torture him but at 3am on the first night they covered his face with a hood and handcuffed him.
He added: "They were often rude and unpleasant. They did threaten my life a number of times. There was one 24 hour period when they seemed to get very angry and chained me up but that only lasted 24 hours.
"They were even occasionally friendly. One of the guards would let me go through and watch his television. But it was very grim.
"It was like being buried alive and removed from the world, in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable."
He said there was no violence towards him until the last half hour of his captivity.
He said his kidnappers had become anxious when Hamas took over the region's security a few weeks ago.
Mr Johnston said he had managed to speak to his father, Graham.
Speaking of his family, who live in Scotland, he said: "It's so good, the thought that I will be with them soon."
He said he had suffered an "extraordinary level of stress and psychological pressure for a long, long time" but felt okay.
In a statement, Mr Johnston's parents Graham and Margaret and his sister Katriona said: "A short time ago, we received the news we've waited 114 days for - that Alan is free and is safe - and we are overjoyed.
"The last 114 days have been a dreadful time for us - but particularly for Alan. Through it all, we never lost hope.
"Alan had always told us of the friends he'd made in Gaza. We knew, in the end, they would be there for him.
"We've always known Alan was special. But the last 14 weeks have shown us how special he is to others - to his friends in Gaza, to his colleagues at the BBC and to the listeners and viewers who've written in their thousands. Their support has buoyed us up through the darkest days. We've drawn our strength from them.
"We want to thank all those who've worked so hard to secure Alan's release - the people in Gaza, those in the wider Middle East region, as well as the Foreign Office and the BBC."
At about 5.45am today a Foreign Office spokesperson said: "I'm delighted to confirm that Alan Johnston is now in the care of officials from the British Consulate General in Jerusalem.
"Our top priority will be to ensure he is in good health and reunited with his family as soon as possible."
In a statement, the BBC said: "We are delighted and extremely relieved that our friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, has been released.
"This is wonderful news for his family, friends and colleagues - and everyone around the world who has shown their support for him over the past 114 days.
"We thank all of those who worked tirelessly - here and in the wider Middle East - to secure his freedom."
More than 180,000 people signed an online petition calling for his immediate release which was organised by the BBC.
Hamas had demanded Johnston's freedom since it violently seized control of Gaza last month, in an apparent bid to gain favour with the West.
Yesterday, Hamas gunmen took positions around the stronghold of the Army of Islam, the shadowy group holding Johnston, stepping up the pressure to secure his release.
Johnston was kidnapped from a Gaza City street on March 12.
Hamas had said it knew where to find him but had not raided the hideout for fear he would be harmed.
But yesterday, members of Hamas' 6,000-strong militia moved on to rooftops of high-rise buildings and deployed gunmen in streets in the Gaza City neighbourhood inhabited by the Doghmush clan. The large, heavily armed family leads the Army of Islam.
Within hours, Alan Johnston was free.
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