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Relief, glee over reporter's freedom

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN's Ben Wedeman says BBC reporter's freedom a relief to all reporters
  • The BBC's Alan Johnston calls his kidnapping ordeal "a nightmare"
  • Johnston spent 114 days in captivity
  • Wedeman: Clues of potential release intensified Monday
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By Ben Wedeman
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Here, Ben Wedeman talks about his relief over the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza.

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- I didn't sleep a wink last night, but I'm not tired. After a night of anxiety and drama, the BBC's Alan Johnston is finally free.

BBC reporter Alan Johnston smiles Wednesday in Gaza City shortly after his ordeal as a hostage ended.

For 114 days, those of us who know Alan have been fretting over his kidnapping in Gaza and looking forward to some good news. We finally got it -- something that brings relief to all us who've reported in the region.

When I spoke to him on the phone early Wednesday, he sounded positively giddy. "I'm so glad to be free," he said. "It was a nightmare, and I didn't think it would ever end."

I knew something was afoot Monday when CNN's Gaza producer, Talal Abu Rahmeh, told me Hamas forces had closed off the Gaza City neighborhood of Sabra, where it was widely believed Alan was being held. Video Watch Johnston describe "how good it feels" »

Talal said Hamas troops were stopping and checking the identity of everyone entering and leaving the area. And on Tuesday night, he said Hamas had increased their military presence in Sabra, and that "something" was about to happen.

Throughout Tuesday evening and into early Wednesday, I made and received dozens of phone calls to and from Gaza. Even though the signs increasingly looked positive, I knew that hopes had been raised before, only to be dashed.

  • On June 16, just two days after Hamas decisively defeated Fatah in Gaza, I spent the day at the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel, having been told by Hamas leaders Alan would be released "within hours." But hours turned into days, and days were turning into weeks.
  • Then, on June 24, the kidnappers released a disturbing video in which a clearly distressed Alan was shown wearing what he called an explosives vest. He warned his captors would detonate the bomb if Hamas made any attempt to free him by force, turning his cell into a "death zone." The captors' statements became increasingly shrill and threatening, prompting heightened anxiety over Alan's fate. Photo See photos of Johnston before, during and after captivity »
  • All the while though, we knew Hamas was eager to bring his kidnapping to an early end. Hamas wanted to resolve the Johnston kidnapping not wholly out of altruistic motivations. Much has been said and written about Hamas' desire to project an image of law and order. But they also consider the pro-Fatah Daghmoush clan -- out of which Johnston's captors, the Army of Islam, was formed -- the single biggest obstacle to complete control of Gaza.

    My contacts there say sooner or later Hamas will move against the clan. Furthermore, Hamas leaders are worried the Army of Islam represents the thin end of al Qaeda's wedge and are determined to eradicate it -- not because they've suddenly signed on to President Bush's global war on terror but rather out of a desire not to be outflanked politically.

    The often scorching heat of Gaza's complicated politics shows no sign of cooling off. But at least Alan's ordeal is over, and amazingly he seems to have emerged in surprisingly good shape.

    Alan was provided with a radio and could listen to the BBC World Service. He was fully aware of all the dramatic developments going on in Gaza. More importantly, Alan told me, was his ability to hear on the BBC that his friends and colleagues both inside Gaza and outside, hadn't forgotten about him, and were agitating and pressing for his release.

    "It's great to be able to talk to people like you," he told me shortly after being freed.

    I'm thrilled you're out, Alan.

    Take some time off, please. Unwind. Enjoy your freedom. Try to get Gaza out of your head. I know how hard that can be. I was shot in Gaza and watched, stunned, as CNN producer Riyadh Ali was kidnapped before my eyes. Just last week, I huddled against a wall as bullets zinged around me. And still I keep going back.

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    The temptation to return to a place where the story is raw, but real is intense. There is nothing Paris Hilton about Gaza. But resist the strange attraction of Gaza for a while.

    You've invested far more sweat and stress there than I have. But in the end, I know you probably will be drawn back. Gaza's like that. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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