U.K. journalist kidnapped, then freed in Iraq

A man identifying himself as James Brandon, a 23-year-old working for the Sunday Telegraph, is seen in a video with a masked insurgent, after allegedly being kidnapped from his hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, on Friday. AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Militants in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Friday released a British journalist they kidnapped and threatened to kill, after aides to militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded he be freed.

The journalist, James Brandon, was brought to the Basra’s office of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and freed. He was later handed over to the British consulate by Brig. Mohammed Kadhem al-Ali, the head of Basra police.

I’m OK, I’m recovering,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “I’ve been released thanks to the Mahdi Army, because they intervened and negotiated with the kidnappers.”

Brandon, 23, was abducted Thursday night when a group of masked gunmen stormed the Diafa Hotel in Basra, pulled him from his room and badly beat him. They released a video Friday morning showing a scared and bare-chested Brandon with a bandage around his head.

They threatened to kill him within 24 hours if U.S. forces did not leave Najaf, where the Americans were fighting al-Sadr’s militia.

“We are the sons of the Iraqi people,” said a captor wearing a black ski mask in the video. “We demand the withdrawal of the occupation forces from the holy city of Najaf in 24 hours, otherwise we will kill this British hostage,” he said, patting Brandon on the shoulder.

Condemnation from al-Sadr aides
In the video, a bandaged Brandon turned to a captor and said, “I’m a journalist. I just write about what’s happening in Iraq.”

Al-Sadr aides immediately condemned the kidnapping. Ahmed al-Khalisy, head of al-Sadr’s office in Basra, called on the captors Friday to release Brandon immediately.

Several hours later, the militants brought Brandon to al-Sadr’s local office and freed him.

“They just told me they realized I was a journalist and they said I was going to be let go,” he said. “I didn’t quite believe it until it actually happened.”

Brandon, 23, said he was a freelance journalist who came to Basra on Wednesday working for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, the Christian Science Monitor and the Scotsman. He had interviewed several militants, who seemed friendly, he said.

About 10 p.m. Thursday, Brandon heard a knock on his hotel room door, he said. When he opened it, eight men with guns, their faces covered in balaclavas, burst in and dragged him off.

Beating and a fake execution
The kidnappers beat Brandon, threatened to kill him and even carried out a fake execution on him with an unloaded gun, Brandon said. Brandon was badly bruised, with a black eye and swelling on his face after his release.

“All sorts of unpleasant things happened,” he said.

Kidnappers in Iraq have seized scores of hostages in recent months threatening to kill them in an effort to drive out coalition forces and companies supporting them.

However, most of those kidnappers have been Sunni insurgents. The militants who seized Brandon were almost certainly Shiites angry at the battles in Najaf.

Brandon was the third journalist kidnapped in Iraq in recent months. In April, two Japanese journalists were among a group of Japanese abducted near the city of Fallujah and released unharmed.

After his brief, frightening ordeal, Brandon said: “I’ll be leaving Basra.”