Mon, Aug 28, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Journalists freed in Gaza after nine-day ordeal

COERCED CONVERSION Steve Centanni told Fox News that he and Olaf Wiig had been forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint by the men who kidnapped them


Freed journalists Steve Centanni, left, of the US Fox News television network, and freelance cameraman Olaf Wiig, stand with Wiig's wife Anita McNaught as they speak to the press at the Beach Hotel following their release in Gaza City yesterday.


Two Fox News journalists appeared to be in good health after they were released yesterday, nearly two weeks after being seized by militants in the longest-running drama involving foreign hostages in the Gaza Strip.

Cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, and correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, were dropped off at Gaza City's Beach Hotel by Palestinian security officials. A tearful Centanni briefly embraced a Palestinian journalist in the lobby, then rushed upstairs. Wiig walked into the lobby behind Centanni, briefly turned when someone pulled him by the arm and shouted "get off" before heading upstairs.

The pair then met with Palestinian officials, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The three men sat in a circle of chairs at the Beach Hotel.

"I want to thank everybody. I am happy to be here. I hope that this never scares a single journalist away from coming to Gaza to cover the story because the Palestinian people are very beautiful and kind hearted," Centanni told reporters. "The world needs to know more about them. Don't be discouraged."

Wiig also said he was worried that the kidnapping would scare off reporters.

"My biggest concern really is that as a result of what happened to us foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming to tell the story and that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine," he said.

"You guys need us on the streets, and you need people to be aware of the story." he said.

Wiig's wife, Anita McNaught, thanked Palestinian officials and Fox News for their efforts in getting the men released. The men refused to take questions. They then traveled to the Erez border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip and entered Israel later yesterday.

In a phone call with Fox News, Centanni said that during his capture, he was held at times face down in a dark garage, tied up in painful positions, and that he and Wiig were forced at gunpoint to make statements, including that they had converted to Islam.

"I'm a little emotional because this is overwhelming, but I'm fine," Centanni said. "I'm so happy to be freed."

The men had been seized in Gaza City on Aug. 14 by a previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades. However, senior Palestinian security officials said yesterday the name was a front for local militants, and that Palestinian authorities had known the identity of the kidnappers from the start.

Haniyeh also confirmed the kidnappers were from Gaza, squashing speculation that al-Qaeda had directed the abduction.

It remained unclear whether the kidnappers had ties to Hamas or the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. A third group, the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed yesterday it had helped mediate the release of the journalists.

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