GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – An Associated Press photographer was released unharmed late Tuesday after a harrowing day in the hands of Palestinian gunmen who abducted him in Gaza and dressed him in women's clothes before transporting him from one secret location to another.
Emilio Morenatti, 37, was brought before midnight to the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by Fatah officials. It was not immediately clear who kidnapped him, though officials said he was taken by criminal elements. The government and main Palestinian groups denounced the abduction.
Morenatti looked fatigued after his daylong ordeal. He said he was tired but otherwise unharmed.
"I'm tired but happy to have come back because there were very anguished moments," said Morenatti.
He said the kidnappers kept him in a small room, where he was held for about four hours during which he was visited by masked men. Later he was put in a car dressed as a woman.
"They put a bag on my head and they dressed me up as a woman, as a woman in a long veil," he added.
Morenatti was kidnapped as he headed out of his Gaza City apartment Tuesday morning for an AP car, where Majed Hamdan, an AP driver and translator, was waiting. Hamdan said four gunmen grabbed his keys and phone and told him to turn away, pressing a gun to his head and threatening to harm him if he moved.
They snatched Morenatti, shoved him into a white Volkswagen Golf car and drove off, Hamdan said.
Just moments after his release, Morenatti said he was kept blindfolded much of the time, and that his captors spoke only Arabic, which he doesn't speak.
"I didn't know at any moment what they were doing," he said. "They moved me but nobody explained anything to me. It was very confusing."
He said he was held in complete darkness for much of the time. In the second house, he said, he could hear the sounds of a family. He said he was given one meal of cheese and lunch meats early in the day and a portion of fruit later on.
He did not know who his captors were. A Palestinian security official said a doorman who worked at the Gaza apartment where Morenatti was staying had been detained on suspicion of tipping off the kidnappers. The official, Luay Sakka, said he hoped others involved in the abduction would also be apprehended.
The photographer thanked those who worked for his freedom. "You can't imagine how much I appreciate it. I'm really very happy to come home," he said.
Tom Curley, AP's president and chief executive officer, said, "The Associated Press is relieved that Emilio has been released, apparently unharmed. The security of our journalists is always our top concern. We appreciate the assistance offered by so many people in obtaining his release, especially the Palestinian Authority and the office of the foreign minister of Spain.
"It is crucial, however, that journalists such as Emilio be able to freely report the news in areas of conflict. We will be investigating what happened to assure that he and others can continue their important work," he said.
Over the past two years, militants have frequently kidnapped foreigners as bargaining chips to get relatives released from Palestinian prisons, secure government jobs or settle personal scores. In most cases, the kidnappings were brief and the hostages released unharmed.
But recently, the kidnappers have changed their tactics. Two FOX News journalists kidnapped in August were held for two weeks, much longer than previous cases. The men also suffered physical and mental abuse in captivity.
An unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades claimed responsibility for the August abduction, and its demand for the release of Muslim prisoners held by the U.S. raised fears that foreign extremists, perhaps Al Qaeda, had infiltrated Gaza. But Palestinian security officials later said the name was merely a front for local militants.
Morenatti, from Jerez, Spain, has been based in the Jerusalem bureau of the AP since April 2005, handling periodic assignments in Gaza and the West Bank. He has been in Gaza since Sunday.
Morenatti began working for the AP in April 2004, when he spent a year in Afghanistan covering the conflict there. He also covered the recent war in Lebanon and the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany.
In 1992, Morenatti began work as a photographer with EFE, the Spanish news agency, in Seville, Spain.
The Tel Aviv-based Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign journalists covering Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, denounced the kidnapping.
"There can be no justification whatsoever for kidnapping journalists working to cover events inside Gaza, or anywhere else in the Palestinian territories," the FPA said in a statement.
In the U.S., the media-advocacy groups Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the abduction.
"We're dismayed that journalists have become pawns of Palestinian groups seeking to exploit them for political purposes," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "These blatant attacks on journalists will have a chilling effect on their ability to do their work and will ultimately deprive the world of information about this critically important story."