British journalist tells of 'Indiana Jones-style' bid to escape captors

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The Independent Online

James Brandon, the young British freelance journalist kidnapped in Iraq last week, has given an extraordinary account of his time in captivity, claiming that at one stage he held a knife to the throat of a woman and escaped before being recaptured. Brandon also claimed his captors staged mocked executions, putting unloaded guns to his blindfolded head and pulling the trigger.

James Brandon, the young British freelance journalist kidnapped in Iraq last week, has given an extraordinary account of his time in captivity, claiming that at one stage he held a knife to the throat of a woman and escaped before being recaptured. Brandon also claimed his captors staged mocked executions, putting unloaded guns to his blindfolded head and pulling the trigger.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Brandon, who said he had suffered a fractured cheekbone, spoke of being beaten and pistol-whipped. He said he was keen to return to Iraq despite his ordeal and that he was accused by his captors of being "CIA" or an "Israeli spy". He also said that he planned to kill all his captors in an attempt to escape.

Most astonishing, however was his claim of an escape attempt, where he compared himself to Indiana Jones.

Mr Brandon, 23, said that after being kidnapped at his hotel in Basra on Thursday, he was put in a dark room, where he worked off his blindfold and ropes that were tying him. He said he discovered he was in a kitchen and found a knife on the draining board.

"The windows were barred, so the only exit was through the door, which I worked out must be tied shut by a rope," Brandon said.

"Putting my fingers through a crack in the wooden door, I loosened the rope and tugged at the door ­ only to realise that someone outside the room was holding it shut.

"I wrenched it open and saw a woman in a nightshirt standing there. I felt cold, clinical and desperate to escape at all costs.

"In an Indiana Jones moment, I grabbed her by the neck, slammed her against a wall, pressed my knife to her throat and hissed at her: 'Help me, or I will kill you.'

"She was terrified. 'Please, please do not kill me,' she said. She had children, she told me, and didn't want to die. In Arabic I told her I was an English journalist and she seemed surprised. I forced her out onto the large roof terrace. How can I escape? She told me to jump but it was a drop of at least 15 feet. I made her call softly, to see if anyone was on the lower floors. When there was no reply, we crept downstairs and slipped out of the front door."

Mr Brandon says he headed to a main road where he waited in vain for a car. He could see a floodlit government building and he went in, meeting uniformed guards, thinking he had escaped.

"I congratulated myself on escaping, and on having such a good story to tell, though I also feared no one would believe it," Mr Brandon said.

But Mahdi army militia fighters arrived at the building, pistol-whipped him and took him away again.

"It seemed clear what was going to happen: they were going to kill me," Mr Brandon said. "After a struggle they put me in a police pick-up. I kept shouting: 'Sahafi! Sahafi! [journalist! journalist!]'"

He was then taken to a place where he was put before a camera and told to talk. It was here that Brandon uttered the words played on television late last week: "My name is James Brandon. I am a journalist for The Sunday Telegraph. I just report what happens in Iraq."

Mr Brandon then began planning to ask his kidnappers whether he could be "shot rather than beheaded because it would be a quicker, less messy death.

"Still I hoped it wouldn't come to that. I was still planning to escape and kill them all. For all their weaponry, Iraqis are not adept with AK47s."

Mr Brandon said he was then told he would be released. At a house he was taken to, he saw his captors watching al-Arabiya and heard his name mentioned.

"I heard the men saying to one another 'Sahafi, Sahafi" and realised that they had ­ as I had been trying to tell them all along ­ f***ed up.

"I was not a spy, a soldier an agent. I was just trying to report on events in a war-torn country."

Mr Brandon said shortly afterwards he was taken to Muqtada al-Sadr's district office at Basra. He still did not believe he was free, even during the press conference which then followed.

"If I looked bewildered or somewhat out of my depth I was. Was this just another piece of staged footage?"

Mr Brandon says he finally accepted he was free when he was placed in the hands of British military police. The army treated him for his injuries and then escorted him to Kuwait.

"Believe it or not I was actually intending to head straight back to Baghdad, until I was persuaded by the British consul in Basra that I was being a little overenthusiastic," he said. Mr Brandon said he would now take a holiday and was looking forward to being reunited with his family.

Yesterday, sources said it was thought Mr Brandon may have been the victim of mistaken identity when he was kidnapped. Staff at the hotel where he was abducted were likely to have been under the impression he was a contractor or a security worker.

Mr Brandon, who changed his name by deed poll from Andrew Nassim in 2002, was part of a well-connected group who founded the English-language Baghdad Bulletin. One of his co-founders, Ralph Hassall, sought advice from his Oxford University friend Viscount Grimston, who put him in touch with an investment banker. Furnished with £6,000 raised from family and friends, they produced several editions of the paper before it folded due to lack of advertising.

The biggest shock for the Baghdad Bulletin team was the shooting in July last year of Richard Wild, 24, a freelancer drawn to Iraq. He was due to start work on the paper.

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