Israeli commandos free taxi driver held in pit

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A taxi driver who was imprisoned in a pit for five days by his Palestinian kidnappers returned home to an emotional welcome yesterday after he was freed by Israeli commandos.

Eliyahu Goral, 61, was greeted by a street party outside his home in Tel Aviv after the midnight rescue, with neighbours toasting his release and his family overwhelmed by joy and relief.

"Today we can finally stop crying," said his sister, Zvia Ben-Ami.

Mr Goral said his captors had treated him fairly well. He told Army Radio: "My guard told me that he wouldn't hurt me, that he wouldn't kill me. But I was still afraid. He told me that he would treat me like his own father. Later I told him that he wouldn't keep his father in a hole in the ground."

The gray-haired cab driver, his beard neatly trimmed, looked tired but well as he was mobbed by relatives and friends. Outside, his neighbours danced and clapped to the beat of a drum, while other taxi drivers sang and chanted his name in a spontaneous outpouring of delight.

Mr Goral's wife, Hannah, told Israel TV that the ordeal had been "like dying over and over again". She said: "We were very, very tense. We couldn't sleep, we couldn't eat."

It is rare for kidnappings of Israelis by Palestinians to end happily. In other cases where Israelis have been captured by militants, they have either been killed in captivity or during raids intended to free them.

Mr Goral's kidnappers do not seem to have been professionals, and the Israeli army said they did not appear to have formal links to Palestinian militant groups.

His ordeal began on Friday, when he picked up two young men, a woman and a child near Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. They asked to be driven to Jerusalem; when they arrived in the city, Mr Goral said, "they threatened me with a knife, and I didn't put up a fight".

Mr Goral's taxi was found with its motor running in an Arab district of Jerusalem. From there, he was taken by foot to the nearby West Bank town of Ramallah, where he was confined to a 10-meter (30ft) cellar pit. Mr Goral said he slept on planks, and his captors placed weights on the roof to thwart his escape.

Commandos freed him early yesterday morning. A lone guard put up no resistance and was arrested, the army said. The military said no shots were fired and no one was injured in the operation. Mr Goral described the moment of his release as "wonderful".

He said he would keep driving his cab "as usual". But his wife had other ideas. "I told him I don't want him to go back," she said. "He said he'd see how he feels in a week or two."