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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BBC Reporter Released in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- BBC reporter Alan Johnston was freed Wednesday after being held in solitary confinement by Palestinian gunmen for four months in the Gaza Strip, an experience he said was "like being buried alive."

Visibly gaunt but smiling, Johnston said it was "fantastic" to be free.

Gaza's Hamas rulers said Johnston's release marked the beginning of a new era of law and order in the coastal strip, but also acknowledged they would not disarm Johnston's al-Qaida-inspired kidnappers, who call themselves the Army of Islam and have close ties to one of Gaza's most powerful clans.

Hamas also said Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas-allied militants last year, could be freed next, provided Israel releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Israel has balked at such demands.

At a news conference with Hamas officials, Johnston -- who was held in captivity far longer than any other foreigner kidnapped in Gaza -- described his experience as "occasionally terrifying."

"The last 16 weeks, of course, were just the very worst you can imagine of my life, like being buried alive, really, removed from the world," he said.

Johnston said his kidnappers, headed by a man known as Abu Khaled, "did threaten my life a number of times in various ways."

In exchange for Johnston, the Army of Islam had originally demanded that Britain free a radical Islamic cleric with ties to al-Qaida.

A native of Scotland who covered Gaza for three years, Johnston was snatched from a Gaza City street by gunmen on March 12.

Hamas had demanded Johnston's freedom since it violently seized control of Gaza last month, apparently hoping to curry favor with Western countries that have unanimously condemned the takeover.

After his release, Johnston was surrounded by armed Hamas security forces and hustled to a news conference with Ismail Haniyeh, the former Palestinian prime minister who now heads the Hamas regime in Gaza. Haniyeh draped a Palestinian flag around Johnston's shoulders -- which he quickly removed -- and pinned a flag pin on his blazer.