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American journalist Jill Carroll freed after nearly 3 months

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Jill Carroll's nearly three months of captivity ended around 12:20 p.m. Thursday when she walked into an Iraqi Islamic Party office in western Baghdad and handed the front-desk clerk a note asking for help.

The kidnapped American journalist, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, had been snatched just a few miles away on Jan. 7 while leaving a Sunni politician's office. Her whereabouts had been unknown until a car dropped her off in front of the party's office, guards at the building said. She appeared healthy.

In an interview broadcast on Baghdad television, Carroll said she was treated well during her 82 days of captivity. Still wearing a hijab, which covered her hair, Carroll said she was fed well and allowed to go to the bathroom by herself. She emphasized that she was never threatened. She said she occasionally heard news, but she didn't know what led to her release, including whether a ransom had been paid.

"You would have to ask the mujahadeen (religious fighters) that," she said. "They came to me and said, `OK, we are letting you go now.'"

On the Christian Science Monitor Web site, Editor Richard Bergenheim said no ransom had been paid. In three tapes released to Iraqi media during her captivity, a group called the Vengeance Brigade said it was holding Carroll.

In the last tape, the kidnappers threatened to kill Carroll unless all female prisoners in Iraq were released by Feb. 26. U.S. officials freed five of the nine prisoners around that time, but they said that their release was unrelated to the demand. The deadline passed with no word of Carroll, but Minister of Interior Bayan Jabr said two days later that he believed she was alive.

Officials at the Ministry of Justice said five female detainees remain in Iraq.

Carroll's arrival at the Iraqi Islamic Party on Thursday initially caused confusion. The note, written in Arabic, said that she was a hostage and asked officials there to deliver her to her country, said employees at the Iraqi Islamic Party office.

However, the employees said Carroll looked like an Iraqi, perhaps an employee of the party's women's section. She was wearing an Islamic gown, and her hair was veiled. She also wore a khamar, a piece of cloth that covered most of her face. Only her red spectacles were visible.

The front-desk clerk went to the office manager and said a woman wanted to talk to him. "I'm too busy," the office manager, who wanted to be referred to only by the nickname Abu Hassan, replied. He got up only at the clerk's insistence.

After he read the note, Abu Hassan said, Carroll took off the khamar, revealing her face.

Workers at the office said they didn't know what to do next. No one spoke English, so Carroll tried to communicate in broken Arabic, telling the staff that she was a hostage. But Hassan said he was nervous, given the security situation, and feared that she could be untrustworthy. He called the party's general secretary, Tariq al-Hashimi, who spoke English, and asked him to talk to Carroll. Hashimi said he assured Carroll that she was safe and sent a convoy of cars and guards to pick her up and take her to party headquarters.

"She was very nervous. And she was very scared of everybody around her. She just wanted to go home," Hassan said.

On average, about 35 Iraqis are kidnapped every day. More than 400 foreigners have been snatched since April 2003. Carroll's kidnapping captured international attention as her newspaper colleagues, friends and family frequently appealed to her captors, telling them about her reverence for Iraqis and her commitment to telling their stories.

While at Hashimi's office, Carroll called her father. Jim Carroll, in an interview outside his North Carolina home, said he received the call around 6 a.m. (or 2 p.m. Baghdad time).

She said: "Hi, Dad. This is Jill. I'm released."


(Al Awsy is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.