Kidnapped journalist is freed after Sadr's men broker deal

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The Independent Online

The grainy video footage that flashed around the world shortly after 8.30am yesterday followed a chillingly familiar script ­ a masked captor threatening to kill his frightened, half-naked hostage.

For 18 hours, it was the terrifying fate of James Brandon, 23, a British journalist working for The Sunday Telegraph, to be the latest victim of Iraq's spree of kidnappings after gunmen burst into his hotel room in Basra on Thursday night and dragged him in to captivity.

Footage of the stunned freelance reporter, wearing a white bandage around his head, showed one of his abductors demanding the withdrawal within 24 hours of American forces fighting militia loyal to the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr in the holy city of Najaf. His hand patting Mr Brandon on the shoulder, the Shia gunman stared into the camera from behind a black cloth mask and said: "Otherwise we will kill this British hostage."

The implication was all too clear ­ the next video could carry a repeat of the grotesque images of beheaded hostages that have followed previous trophy kidnappings by Sunni insurgents opposed to the American-led occupation.

Instead, the images that followed yesterday afternoon were of an exhausted but immensely relieved Mr Brandon thanking a representative of Sadr and his militia force, the Mehdi Army, for securing a release that, only hours earlier, had seemed deeply unlikely.

Nursing a heavily bruised left eye, the reporter, who 11 months ago had been a post-graduate student in London, said: "Initially, I was treated roughly, but once they knew I was a journalist I was treated very well. I've been released thanks to the Mehdi Army, because they intervened and negotiated with the kidnappers."

The ordeal for the Briton had begun shortly after 10pm on Thursday when 30 gunmen arrived at the Diafa Hotel in central Basra. It was unclear whether the kidnappers had targeted Mr Brandon, who had come to the southern Iraqi city to cover this week's unrest by pro-Sadr militants, who claimed the lives of two British soldiers. After his release, the reporter confirmed he had interviewed several of the militants in recent days, raising the possibility that he then became a target.

Certainly, it did not take long for a crumpled piece of paper behind the front desk of the concrete hotel to lead the men to room 112 and Mr Brandon. The registration document, written in both English and Arabic, said: "Full name: James Andrew Brandon. Nationality: British. Profession: Press."

When he opened the door to his room, equipped with a noisy air conditioning unit, the reporter was greeted by the sight of eight kidnappers, their faces covered with black balaclavas. The men beat him, forcing him to kneel on the floor as they carried out a mock execution with an unloaded gun.

Mr Brandon denied reports he had been shot in the legs as he struggled with his captors. But he added: "All sorts of unpleasant things happened."

As the journalist was last night handed over to British diplomats, the unusual route he had taken to get to Iraq in the first place was becoming clear. The son of an Egyptian-born businessman, Mr Brandon has no formal training in journalism and until last summer was a student at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. He had graduated from York University with a first class history degree. His thesis for his master's degree was: "Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism in the contemporary Middle East."

After spending a summer two years ago working for an English-language newspaper in Yemen, he decided to travel to Baghdad, where he worked on a magazine before joining a growing coterie of freelance reporters. The Briton specialised in business reporting but also wrote news stories for British papers including The Independent, The Scotsman and The Sunday Telegraph.

David Enders, Mr Brandon's former editor on the Baghdad Bulletin, a fortnightly magazine founded after the fall of Saddam Hussein, described him as a "very quiet" and private person with rudimentary spoken Arabic. But the rookie reporter, who attended a leading public school, Westminster, apparently coped well in the dangerous environment of post-war Iraq. While on the Bulletin, before it folded in September last year, he wrote articles from Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, and from the town of Hillah, at a time when foreigners were becoming targets for attack.

Mr Enders said: "He was extremely calm, which is exactly what you want in this situation." Like the other foreigners on the magazine Mr Brandon was unpaid but was given lodging. He had recently returned to Baghdad after a holiday in Romania. According to Mr Enders, he knew Basra well.

Friends described the journalist as being cagey about his private life. He did not speak much about his Arab heritage, although he told friends that his father, Ramsay Nassim, was Egyptian and lived in Dubai after divorcing his mother, Hilary. In 2002, he changed his name by deed poll from Andrew Nassim to his current name.

One schoolfriend said: "He was one of those people who was always friendly but you realised you never really knew. He was a mysterious guy."

Kidnapping has become a favoured tool of anti-American militants in Iraq with an estimated 70 to 80 foreigners being taken hostage this year. Ten have been murdered; 19 are thought to remain in captivity.

Most hostage-takings have been carried out by Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein, making the abduction of Mr Brandon in the Shia-dominated south of Iraq unusual. Foreign Office officials said that the kidnapping seemed to have been a random act carried out by a "ragtag bunch".

A cleric representing Sadr at the press conference held after Mr Brandon's release told him: "We apologise for what happened to you ­ this is not our tradition, not our rules. It is not the tradition of Islam."

Outside the Foreign Office in London last night, Mr Brandon's mother, Hilary Nassim, thanked those in Britain and Iraq who had helped her son. She said: "I've just spoken to him on the phone and he was joking about his black eye. He was happy." A Foreign Office spokeswoman said Mr Brandon was safe and well, in the hands of British officials in Basra.

Earlier, the Briton gave a hint that he recognised the scale of his good fortune. When asked what he would now do, he gave a weak smile and said: "I might take a holiday."