Hostage negotiator's New Zealand links

By James Ihaka

It was supposed to be a relaxing end to the English summer for Canon Andrew White.

He had planned a break - his first in 18 months - in France strolling the Champs-Elysees and perhaps spending time at Paris Disneyland with his wife and children.

But when an email from Roger Wiig, father of snatched journalist Olaf Wiig, arrived pleading for help, Canon White took the matter "very seriously" even though he normally has no direct contact with families when he is involved in hostage negotiations.

"Roger was a man of the cloth. I wasn't aware of it but Roger and I served on the same inter-religious committee for Jews, Muslims and Christians," Canon White says.

"He's a minister here and lives not too far away in Bromley, Kent."

And it was a chance to engage in the speciality he has indulged in for 20 years - hostage negotiations.

As well as being an ordained minister and the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, who has performed adult baptisms in Saddam Hussein's swimming pool, Canon White is the chief executive of the Foundation of Reconciliation in the Middle East, which engages in inter-faith dialogue with the leading religious figures.

He spent last Christmas bargaining for the lives of the Burton family who went to the Palestinian Territories on the recommendation of their daughter Kate, only to be held captive by militants for three days.

So it should have been no surprise that he was instrumental in securing the release of Wiig and his Fox News colleague journalist Steve Centanni.

As well as his connection with Olaf's father, Canon White felt obliged to become involved because he feels connected to New Zealand: his bodyguards are all former New Zealand Army members, and he has a 7-year-old son whose wall is covered in All Blacks pictures and greets every day with the haka "Ka mate".

Canon White suffers from multiple sclerosis and walks with the aid of a stick.

But he still drives a hard bargain.

He refuses to budge when asked details of how his organisation made contact with the kidnappers.

The abductors, the Holy Jihad Brigades, were new to the game and his people were dealing with the leaders within two days.

"They didn't really know much about it or the rules about it [kidnapping].

"There are certain things you must do in the way you communicate and how you set the ransom but these guys had no idea about any of it."

Their inexperience added days to the ordeal and these were the longest negotiations he had been involved in.

"Certainly we paid no ransom at all but there were other things we had to do and right now we are trying to raise the money to do them."

He said he directed operations via telephone in Paris while his team, made up of Palestinians, did the footwork in Gaza.

This was possible only because of the many years his organisation had spent earning the trust and respect of people in the Middle East by providing help for schools and clinics there.

"One of my key people is a Palestinian woman whose husband is serving 35 life sentences - so the reality is he's probably not a very nice guy.

"But she is a wonderful person and she always helps us so we try and help her, whether it's rebuilding bombed houses, paying for children's camps or buying school bags for the kids."

Canon White's efforts complemented the work of a New Zealand team, led by senior diplomat Peter Rider and, of course, Wiig's wife, journalist Anita McNaught, who has spoken about how each person involved in the effort had a crucial role to play.

Canon White said a key part of the approach was ignoring the United States-style "no negotiations with terrorists" ultimatums. To him it is all about maintaining relationships and being willing to go the distance.

"The only way forward is to break the rules. You're not going to get anyone back if you don't talk with terrorists," he said. "One of the things with hostage negotiations is you need to find a way in which the kidnappers can save face."

He said he kept in touch with the Wiig family and told them exactly how events would play out, including the men's conversion to Islam.

Despite the seemingly helpless position, Olaf's father's status became a contributing factor in their release.

"People in Palestine are predominantly Muslim but they have a lot of respect for people in the church, so once I told them Olaf's father was a clergyman they took it a lot more seriously."

Of the nearly 100 hostage incidents he has been involved with, just 29 have been successful.

"It is just so demanding and so, so tiring. You almost feel like crying when they're released. You don't feel any elation and you can't watch it on television because they've got it all wrong."

Maybe all he needs is a decent break.


Drama in Gaza

* New Zealand cameraman Olaf Wiig and American television reporter Steve Centanni were snatched by gunmen on August 14.

* A previously unknown group calling itself the Holy Jihad Brigades claimed responsibility for the abduction.

* The pair were released on August 27.

* They had been forced at gunpoint to say in a videotape they had converted to Islam.

* Wiig told his father, the Rev Roger Wiig, that he had feared for his life, particularly in the last few days of captivity.

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