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Captors Release Two FOX News Journalists Kidnapped in Gaza Aug. 14

Two FOX News journalists were released by their kidnappers Sunday, nearly two weeks after they were taken hostage in the Gaza Strip.

Steve Centanni, 60, and Olaf Wiig, 36, left Gaza and have since crossed into Israel after their release. The men left Gaza through the Erez border crossing.

The freeing of Centanni, a correspondent, and Wiig, a cameraman, ends the longest-running drama involving foreign hostages in Gaza.

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The two journalists were dropped off at Gaza City's Beach Hotel by Palestinian security officials and appeared to be in good health. A tearful Centanni embraced a Palestinian journalist briefly as he entered, then rushed upstairs as Wiig followed.

Centanni, in a phone interview shortly after his release, said "I'm fine. I'm just so happy to be free."

He said he was so emotional because he was out and alive.

"There were times when I thought 'I'm dead,' and I'm not," Centanni said. "I'm fine. I'm so very happy."

He recounted how he and Wiig were pulled out of their car on August 14 and taken at gunpoint into another car. The kidnappers blindfolded them and handcuffed their hands behind their backs with plastic ties. They were then transferred to another car and driven to a building that they later learned was a garage.

"We were pushed down onto the dirt-covered concrete floor and we were forced to lie face down with our handcuffs on," Centanni said.

"Olaf was in the same room with me. Our shoulders were wrenched back, very painful."

Both of the men were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, Centanni said.

"We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint," Centanni told FOX News. "Don't get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but 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."

Centanni's brother, Ken, spoke to FOX News directly after the news was released.

"It's just a tremendous amount of relief, overwhelming relief," he said.

Later Sunday, Centanni and Wiig appeared before reporters, then traveled to the Erez crossing into Israel to leave Gaza.

"I want to thank everybody. I am happy to be here. 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," Centanni told reporters. "The world needs to know more about them. Don't be discouraged."

Wiig also said he was worried that the kidnapping would scare off reporters.

"My biggest concern really is that as a result of what happened to us foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming to tell the story and that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine," Wiig said. "You guys need us on the streets, and you need people to be aware of the story."

Wiig's wife, Anita McNaught, thanked Palestinian officials and FOX News for their efforts in getting the men released. The men refused to take questions.

Before that, the two journalists made a joint appearance with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Haniyeh, Centanni and Wiig sat in a circle of chairs at the Beach Hotel. Wiig was also accompanied by his wife.

The day had begun with promises by senior Palestinian officials that the two would be released in coming hours.

At the same time, before the journalists' release, a new video was released, showing Wiig and Centanni dressed in beige Arab-style robes. Wiig, of New Zealand, delivered an anti-Western speech, his face expressionless and his tone halting. The kidnappers claimed both men had converted to Islam.

The journalists had been seized in Gaza City on Aug. 14 by a previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades. However, senior Palestinian security officials said Sunday the name was a front for local militants, and that Palestinian authorities had known the identity of the kidnappers from the start.

Haniyeh also confirmed the kidnappers were from Gaza, squashing speculation that Al Qaeda had directed the abduction. "The kidnappers have no link to Al Qaeda or any other organization or faction," Haniyeh said. "Al Qaeda as an organization does not exist in the Gaza Strip."

It remained unclear whether the kidnappers had ties to Hamas or the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. A third group, the Popular Resistance Committees, claimed Sunday it had helped mediate the release of the journalists.

In chaotic Gaza, gunmen often change their affiliation or form splinter groups. Their agendas are often driven by personal issues, including jobs and power for their clans, rather than by ideology.

In the past two years, Palestinian militants have seized more than two dozen foreigners, usually to settle personal scores, but released them unharmed within hours. The holding of the FOX journalists had been the longest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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