Middle East

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. Coming up, in the city that practically invented civilization, Iraq's top archaeologist says threats of violence force him to flee the country.

I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. First, to Israel where U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan met with Israeli leaders today, urging them to withdraw troops from southern Lebanon as more U.N. peacekeepers arrive in the region.

CHADWICK: Mr. Annan also demanded the release by Hezbollah of two captured or kidnapped Israeli soldiers.

And meanwhile, in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, another kidnapping has ended peacefully.

BRAND: Two Fox News journalists were set free on Sunday after spending 13 days in an abandoned garage. They were taken hostage by a group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades.

One of the journalists is Steve Centanni. He's a correspondent for Fox News. And welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVE CENTANNI (Correspondent, Fox News): Thanks, Madeleine. Good to be here. Very good to be here.

BRAND: Very good to be here. And welcome home.

Mr. CENTANNI: Thank you.

BRAND: It has been a few days since you were released on Sunday. What are you thinking now?

Mr. CENTANNI: Oh, I'm extremely relieved. I'm thinking it's a tragedy and so unnecessary that me and Olaf and all our family and friends had to go through this thing, because it just seems pointless to me. I don't know what anybody got out of it.

And whoever was behind it was working against their own best interests -cutting their own throat, so to speak - because they need foreign journalists to cover the story in the Palestinian territories, especially Gaza Strip where things are spiraling out of control into almost total chaos.

It's a humanitarian catastrophe. And it's not going to be as easy to see American foreigners going into Gaza. All of them pulled out almost immediately after the kidnapping.

As soon as we were freed, most of the foreign journalists went home, as far as I know. There's nobody there now. And as Olaf has said and I believe, this is a tragedy for the Palestinian people.

BRAND: Olaf being your cameraman.

Mr. CENTANNI: That's right. He was also kidnapped with me and spent 13 days in captivity with me in a place in Gaza Strip where - we don't know where we were, exactly.

BRAND: This group, the Holy Jihad Brigades - the group that kidnapped you -nobody seems to know much about them. Why do you think you were targeted by them?

Mr. CENTANNI: I certainly never heard of them. And why they did it is a big question. If we knew exactly who they were, we might know better why they did it. But there were different demands of us at different times.

They wanted us to explain what we'd been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan where Olaf and I had worked in previous years together. They were angry about President Bush's recent statements saying there's war against Islamic fascists. They were angry about that. They don't agree with President Bush going into Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else.

And they saw Americans, or Westerners anyway - you know, Olaf is a New Zealander. They saw Westerners there and decided to nab us to make a political point. And toward the end, we realized there were a couple of different groups probably working together, one more or less a mafia gang that had political motives. One had either a ransom or some kind of release of some prisoners or just better jobs for their friends. We don't know exactly.

The other faction was a wannabe Jihadist group linking itself to al-Qaida, although I don't think they really were linked to al-Qaida.

BRAND: Well, did it appear that they knew who you were? Or was it just, oh, there are a couple of Western journalists. Let's get them.

Mr. CENTANNI: It's hard to know, because at first they didn't appear to know who we were. But then at least I'd say within a day or two they knew pretty quickly. As soon as they got us, they had our IDs, they looked at our passports - they figured out who we were just by looking on the Internet, I believe.

BRAND: Well, so what happened? Describe what happened those 13 days. Did you speak with your captors? Did they treat you well?

Mr. CENTANNI: Yes. We were kidnapped, taken to a transfer point and handcuffed, then driven in another car to another place. After the first six hours, things eased up. During that time it was sheer torment.

They had us pushed face down in the dirt floor of a dirty garage with a loud generator going with our hands cuffed behind our backs and hoods over our heads. And we didn't know how long we were going to have to endure that ordeal. But it was probably a couple of hours, no more.

Then they put us in another room, still handcuffed, still blindfolded. But at least we were sitting on a foam mat both in the same room together. Then a couple of guys come in and they released the bonds, the handcuffs, and take the blindfold off. We were at least relieved that we weren't having to endure that pain anymore.

And after two nights, we were taken to another house where we spent the entire 13 days in the care of these young Jihadists, some people who were caretakers who lived in the house with us, kept guard over us with Kalashnikovs and hand grenades and pistols, but also tried to get friendly with us. They wanted to know who we were. They did take care of us. They fed us and, you know, we had clean clothes and showers and everything was tolerable.

But, of course, you didn't want to be there. And they were intent on, again, educating us about Islam. They bought us books about Islam. They wanted to convert us to the Muslim faith.

BRAND: And you were forced to make a videotape saying you had converted to Islam.

Mr. CENTANNI: They wanted us to know more about Islam to spread the word around the world. They gave us books and we read them. We actually read them. It was all we had to read and somewhat interesting. I learned a lot.

And I do respect Islam and Muslim people all around the world. And I want everyone to know that.

BRAND: Did you convert?

Mr. CENTANNI: You know, did I convert? I don't know enough about Islam to know if it was official or recognized, if we went through the proper procedure or not. They believed we had. I believed we had.

BRAND: Did you fear that you would be executed?

Mr. CENTANNI: You never knew for sure. That was part of the terror of the whole thing, when somebody would come in and decide they'd had enough of you and shoot you to death or make a videotape with you standing there and then cut your throat. The uncertainty was the most painful part, in a way.

BRAND: And then mysteriously, you were released. Do you know if there was anything given to your captors in exchange for your release?

Mr. CENTANNI: I don't know what they got, if anything. I know that there was a lot of pressure applied from Palestinians themselves on this group.

Most Palestinians from the top to the bottom - through the Islamic Jihad, through Hamas, the popular resistance committee - publicly said and I think truly believe they didn't believe in this kidnapping, that it was counterproductive and shouldn't have been carried out.

I think ultimately these people, whoever they were, felt that pressure from the Palestinian community. They were outcasts among their own people. Nobody approved of this. They were being urged to let us go. And I think the pressure finally got to be too much.

If they got anything, it might have been something incremental, like maybe some prisoner transfer that will or has taken place - maybe immunity from being arrested or killed by other Palestinians in Hamas. Something like that, something small.

It could have been money changing hands. I can't see why they wouldn't want money. They could use it for their cause, I suppose. But I don't know who would have paid it or how much.

BRAND: Will you return to that region to do more reporting?

Mr. CENTANNI: I may return to the region. I'm not particularly interested in going to Gaza right now, I have to tell you. They do need foreign journalists there.

When I held the little press conference in the hotel after being freed, I said that people shouldn't be scared away from going to Gaza and covering the story because it needs to be told. And it does.

I don't think I'm going to be the one to do it, at least not in the short term. But somebody should, and I hope they do. Otherwise it is a tragedy for the Palestinian people, and they've been working — it would prove that they've — whoever did this was not working in the best interest of the Palestinian people.

BRAND: Steve Centanni, correspondent for Fox News. He was released on Sunday after being kidnapped in Gaza. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CENTANNI: Thank you. Good to be here.

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