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British Hostage Freed by Libya Militants As Family Denies Ransom Reports

David Bolam is 'safe and well' after his release, but suggestions that a payment secured his freedom have agitated British authorities.
October 6, 2014, 6:05pm
Image via YouTube

As the murder of Alan Henning by Islamic State fighters drew worldwide outrage over the weekend, another British hostage ordeal ended in relief as teacher David Bolam was released by militants in Libya after four months in captivity.

Bolam was "safe and well" after being reunited with his family in Britain following his release last week, the Foreign Office reported. But amid joy at the news of his freedom came a thorny question — of just how it had been secured.

The Briton had been working as vice-principal of the now closed International School Benghazi when he was kidnapped in May. Local political groups within Libya are said to have helped negotiate his release, a deal which according to the BBC involved the payment of a ransom — a sticky area for British authorities which maintain a strict policy against such transactions.

His family on Sunday denied that any ransom had been paid, amid signs of agitation from the government over the possibility such a deal had been struck. Making any financial agreement would encourage terrorism and increase the kidnapping risk to others, Foreign Office sources told The Telegraph.

While the government denied that it had been involved in any negotiations, it was reportedly kept informed by Libyan sources. The news of Bolam's release comes days after Henning, a British aid worker, was beheaded in Syria; it had been feared that the teacher might suffer the same fate.

Bolam had appeared in a video posted online on August 28, in which he pleaded with British Prime Minister David Cameron to secure his release. In the film, he said: "I am a British teacher. My health is good at the moment. I have been here a very long time. I ask the British government and Prime Minister David Cameron, please allow me to go back to my family. I ask my family and friends, and anyone else who hears this, please can you do something to let the government understand I need to go home soon. Please, please do something to help me."

In the wake of the video the British government requested a media blackout, reportedly due to concerns from key Libyan officials that the video was a sign of uneasiness on the part of Bolam's captors, who were looking to secure a cash ransom prior to a potential government offensive against militia groups controlling Benghazi.

Britain's ambassador to Libya, Michael Aron, tweeted that he was "delighted" by the news.

Delighted Benghazi Head Teacher David Bolam has been released after over 4 months in captivity — Michael Aron (@HMAMichaelAron)October 4, 2014

Bolam had decided to stay in Benghazi despite the deteriorating security situation and increasing attacks on foreigners, one of which killed the school's chemistry teacher, Ronnie Smith.

The targeting of European diplomats made the city a no-go region last year, while the US never reopened its consulate following the 2012 attack which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and 3 members of staff.

Ged O'Connor Challis, who worked alongside Bolam at the International School Benghazi until December, described his former colleague as "single minded and stubborn," saying he had remained in the city despite the growing lawlessness because he believed in what he was doing. Most teachers in the region had decided to leave.

Over the summer it became apparent that Bolam was being held captive by a small militia group based outside of Benghazi, which was demanding a ransom in exchange for his freedom.

The August video in which Bolam appeared, located by the monitoring group SITE, was allegedly distributed by a group calling itself Jeish al-Islam (Army of Islam). SITE were however unable to confirm the identity of the militants in the video.

Following Bolam's release the Foreign Office said in a statement: "We are glad that David Bolam is safe and well after his ordeal, and that he has been reunited with his family."

"HMG [Her Majesty's government] does not pay, facilitate, or condone ransom payments, nor make concessions. Our kidnap for ransom policy is clear and longstanding. Ransom payments to terrorists are illegal. We understand that David's release was agreed between local political factions. HMG was not involved."

Some experts suggested that had Bolam been kidnapped by Islamic State, which has been relentless in carrying out its threats against Western hostages, the outcome would likely have been a tragic one.

Charlie Cooper of the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism organisation, said Bolam's release — in contrast with Henning's murder — was "indicative of the huge difference between other jihadist groups and Islamic State".

He told the BBC: "Islamic State is profoundly more extreme in its outlook and in its ideological motivations."