Kidnapped FOX Journalists Freed in Gaza

08/27/2006 10:00AM

Two FOX News journalists who had been held hostage in the Gaza Strip for nearly two weeks were released Sunday, when Palestinian security officials dropped off correspondent Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig at Gaza City's Beach Hotel.

A tearful Centanni, 60, of Washington, D.C., briefly embraced a Palestinian journalist in the lobby, then rushed upstairs followed by Wiig, 36, of New Zealand. They then met with Palestinian officials, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, reports the Associated Press.

The pair – one of whom had been forced at gunpoint during their captivity to make statements that included claims that they had converted to Islam – appeared to be in good health.

Before the journalists left the Gaza hotel and crossed into Israel, they and the prime minister held a press conference.

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

Wiig's wife, Anita McNaught, thanked Palestinian officials and FOX News for their efforts in securing the men's release.

The journalists had been seized in Gaza City on Aug. 14 by a previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades, with the kidnappers initially demanding the release of all Muslims imprisoned by the U.S. by midnight Saturday (5 p.m. EDT) in exchange for the journalists.

However, senior Palestinian security officials said Sunday that the Holy Jihad Brigades was, in fact, a front for local militants, and that Palestinian authorities had known the identity of the kidnappers from the start.

In a phone call to 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 about a religious conversion.

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," Centanni told FOX. "Don't get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, 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."

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

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