fox crew, haniyeh 298.
(photo credit: AP)
The identity of the kidnappers of the two Fox News journalists released un-harmed in the Gaza Strip on Sunday was still shrouded in mystery as Palestinian Authority leaders remained tight-lipped on the case.
Cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand, and US-born correspondent Steve Centanni, 60, were handed over to PA security officers two weeks after they were seized by unidentified gunmen in Gaza City.
For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here
The two were driven to the Beach Hotel, where they were met by several Palestinian journalists and PA officials, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
"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 urged foreign journalists not to stay away from the Gaza Strip.
"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."
The two refused to answer questions about their ordeal. They then traveled to the Erez border crossing on their way to Israel.
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."
A previously unknown group calling itself Holy Jihad Brigades last week claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded that the US release all Muslim prisoners held in American jails within three days. The deadline expired on Saturday.
PA security officials said they knew the identity of the kidnappers from day one, but refused to elaborate. They said the kidnappers belonged to one of the local militias in the Gaza Strip that used the name Holy Jihad Brigades as a cover.
Hamas officials last week told The Jerusalem Post that the kidnappers belonged to one of PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah militias and that they were seeking money and jobs.
They pointed out that dissident PA security officers and Fatah gunmen were behind the kidnapping of more than 20 foreigners in the Gaza Strip over the past two years. All the foreigners were released unharmed after the PA leadership met the demands of the kidnappers, they said. None of those responsible have ever been arrested.
Abbas is believed to have played an instrumental role in securing the release of the two Fox News newsmen.
Jacob Walles, the US consul-general in Jerusalem, told reporters after he met with Abbas in Ramallah that the PA president had been helpful in the effort to free the men.
"I expressed my thanks to him on behalf of the American government and the American people for his assistance in securing the safe release of the two journalists," Walles told reporters. "Also, the Palestinian security forces were all very helpful in the course of the last two weeks and we all are very pleased there has been a successful outcome."
However, the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of several armed groups in the Gaza Strip, including Fatah and Hamas, claimed on Sunday that its men had negotiated the release of the two journalists. The group also consists of many disgruntled PA policemen.
Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the group, claimed that European mediators had relayed to the US the demands of the kidnappers, which include exerting pressure on Israel to halt its military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the reopening of all border crossings between the Gaza Strip and the outside world. He said that the decision to release the two was taken after the US promised to meet the demands.
Haniyeh also kept mum regarding the identity of the kidnappers, but dismissed reports that they belonged to al-Qaida. "The kidnappers have no link to al-Qaida or any other organization or faction," he said. "Al-Qaida as an organization does not exist in the Gaza Strip."
Shortly before affair ended, the kidnappers claimed that Wiig and Centanni had converted to Islam. The two appeared dressed in beige Arab-style robes.
"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," Centanni later told Fox News. "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."
Ala Hosni, commander of the PA Civil Police in the Gaza Strip, said the kidnappers decided to release the two unconditionally after feeling that they were about to be arrested. He said all the cases of kidnappings would remain open until those responsible were held accountable.
The kidnappers later issued a statement in which they warned "all infidels against visiting Palestine. Any infidel who comes to Palestine will be killed unless he converts to Islam."