TWO Fox News journalists freed yesterday after a long- running kidnap drama in Gaza told how they were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint by the Palestinian militants who seized them 13 days ago.
Hours before Steve Centanni, a 60-year-old American, and his cameraman, Olaf Wiig, 36, from New Zealand, were dropped outside a Gaza hotel, they had appeared in a six-minute video wearing loose- fitting Arab dress and adopting their new faith.
The Washington-based Mr Centanni said later that they were coerced into converting by their armed abductors, who had handcuffed and blindfolded them, and pointed pistols at their heads. The band of up to ten kidnappers told the hostages that they had been seized on behalf of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a US air raid in Iraq in June.
The Fox News correspondent, dispatched to report Israel's incursions into Gaza while the Lebanese conflict with Hezbollah raged in the north, said that he thought several times during his captivity by the unknown Holy Jihad Brigades that he was about to die.
Yet soon after they unexpectedly walked into the Beach Hotel, met Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and thanked him for his efforts to secure their release, they urged other journalists not to be dissuaded from covering the suffering in Gaza.
The Prime Minister denied that any of the Palestinian militant factions were involved in the kidnapping. But it was unclear whether a deal was struck with the kidnappers to win the pair's freedom. Mr Haniya was evasive when asked whether arrests would be made.
A New Zealand police hostage negotiator assisted by an American team has been in Gaza for three days, bolstering the efforts of the Palestinian Interior Ministry to end the crisis. Mr Wiig's wife, Anita McNaught, a Briton and a former BBC World presenter, also pressed the Palestinian Prime Minister and officials.
The video released yesterday was a montage showing the men in different sets of clothes reading statements denouncing President Bush and Tony Blair. It also carried Koranic verses and showed scenes from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
The footage was circulated less than 12 hours after the expiry of a three-day deadline for the release of Muslims held in American prisons, imposed in a previous video. The US Administration dismissed the demand and said that it refused to negotiate with terrorists.
As the pair prepared to leave Gaza for Jerusalem, Mr Centanni told how they were seized at dusk by four gunmen as they drove down a narrow street on August 14. They were driven away, their heads pushed to the floor, and ended up at a camp where their telephones and electronic equipment were seized. The journalists were turned over to another kidnapper. The men — still blindfolded — were driven to a pitch-dark garage where an electricity generator roared. In the following days, they were instructed to write their life stories.