Freed hostages say they were forced to convert to Islam

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The Independent Online

Palestinian gunmen have released two Fox News television journalists kidnapped 13 days earlier, bringing to an end the longest-running case involving foreign hostages in the Gaza Strip.

The pair, Steve Centanni, 60, an American correspondent, and Olaf Wiig, 36, a freelance New Zealand cameraman, said they were in good shape and happy to be free. They were later driven to Israel after meeting Ishmail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, in Gaza. The kidnappers, who called themselves the Holy Jihad Brigades, had previously demanded the release of all Muslims imprisoned in the US.

Mr Haniyeh denied that the kidnappers had links to al-Qa'ida or any other foreign militants. Palestinian security officials said they had known the identity of the kidnappers from the start. The Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of Palestinian fighters, claimed to have mediated the journalists' release.

Mr Centanni said their ordeal ended with their forced conversion to Islam at gunpoint. "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 said.

After being ambushed in a side street on 14 August, they were blindfolded and handcuffed and driven from place to place in a series of vans. "That night, we were put in the back seat of a Volkswagen, blindfolded, our heads pushed down between our knees so that we couldn't see where we were going and drove about 10 minutes," he said. "Then we heard a garage door rattling open. We were taken out of the car with our hands handcuffed behind us and herded into this garage."

Later the men were questioned about previous assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then ordered to write their "life stories". Mr Centanni said they had made a number of videotapes, though the only one they made willingly was the one telling family and friends they were alive and well.

At a press conference, Mr Centanni said: "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."

Earlier before dawn yesterday, an Israeli air strike wounded two Palestinian journalists working for the Reuters news agency near Gaza City. One of them, Sabbah Hmaida, was seriously wounded in the legs. The other, Fadel Shana, suffered shrapnel wounds to his right hand and leg.

The Foreign Press Association condemned the "outrageous targeting" of the armour-plated vehicle, which it said was clearly marked on all sides. The vehicle, it added, has been authorised by the Israelis to operate in the Gaza Strip.

Captain Noa Meir, a military spokeswoman, denied that Israel had deliberately targeted the media. Soldiers had been searching for hidden weapons in what she described as a "sensitive operation".

"The vehicle was spotted next to the force," she said. "It wasn't identified as a TV vehicle. This was a combat zone, where anti-tank rockets have been fired at us in the past."

Ten minutes later, she said, two Hamas gunmen were killed as they were about to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at Israeli forces.

* A key US legislator has said he would block aid that President George Bush promised Lebanon and free the funds only when Beirut agreed to the deployment of international troops on the border with Syria. "The international community must use all our available means to stiffen Lebanon's spine and to convince the government of Lebanon to have the new Unifil troops on the Syrian border in adequate numbers," said Tom Lantos, of the US House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. Mr Lantos said he was putting a legislative hold on Mr Bush's proposal to provide $230m (£122m) in aid for Lebanon. "It is very much my hope that I will be able to lift the hold when the reasons will no longer be present," he said.

Meanwhile four children were wounded yesterday when an unexploded Israeli cluster bomb went off while they were playing in southern Lebanon. One, five-year-old Abbas Youssef Abbas, was in a critical condition.