In 2006, four ex-soldiers helped in the high-profile rescue of two young girls kidnapped by their father and hidden in war-torn Lebanon. New Zealander David Pemberton and his team's Australian leader were caught at the airport and survived three months in one of Lebanon's most notorious jails.

In a crowded prison cell on a hill in Lebanon, New Zealander David (Dave) Pemberton wore an All Blacks jersey, watched his back and the Discovery Channel.

The jersey was supplied by someone at the Lebanese British Consulate; the Discovery Channel was the preferred viewing of Bilal Alzer, a crime boss regarded by some as the most dangerous man in Lebanon.

After Pemberton's friend Brian Corrigan passed up a choice spot in the visiting area for Alzer and his brother, whose mother was visiting, the brothers invited the Australasians to sit with them and watch their two TVs.

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A couple of Hezbollah fighters were moved to make room. Alzer had wild hair and a limp from a partial foot amputation after three bullets lodged in his leg. It was politic not to refuse his offer.

It was early 2007 and Pemberton and Corrigan were in Roumieh Prison on kidnapping charges they denied.

The pair had been arrested at Beirut International Airport on December 20, hours after they helped Canadian Melissa Hawach retrieve her two daughters, 5-year-old Hannah and 3-year-old Cedar, from the resort where their Lebanese-Australian father Joe Hawach had concealed them after abducting them.

In July, Melissa, who had custody, had reluctantly allowed the girls to holiday with Joe in Sydney. An international hunt ensued after Joe took off with them to Lebanon, where fathers effectively have automatic custody rights.

Two other Kiwi ex-soldiers, Michael Douglas Rewi and Simon Edwin Mason Dunn, had also participated in the high-risk reunification, but had flown out undetected.

Melissa and her daughters went into hiding for more than 50 days, travelling by road through Syria and Jordan before flying home to Canada, where they continued to receive death threats.

Pemberton and Corrigan, who had been implicated by a paper trail, were finally released on March 12, after the charges were downgraded from criminal kidnapping to a misdemeanour.

Melissa's success a month earlier in getting the Lebanese courts to recognise her custody - which was unprecedented - meant neither she nor the men could have committed a crime in taking the girls.

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The story drew headlines around the world. Uber-mother Angelina Jolie is reported to have expressed interest in film rights. But the Australasians were largely branded with the morally whiffy label "mercenary" and faded quickly from the limelight.

In his book In Harm's Way, published last year, Corrigan recounts the Hawach mission and life in the maximum-security jail.

It provides glimpses into the mentality of career soldiers and the character of Pemberton, who has kept a low profile since Lebanon.

In his acknowledgments, Corrigan writes: "A solemn thank-you goes to Dave Pemberton for living in conditions that would break the average Westerner - not once do I recall him complaining, such is the character of the man."

There were some 4800 prisoners in Roumieh.

Lebanese Tony Sopranos and al Qaeda terrorists were crammed cheek-by-jowl with university-educated illegal workers from neighbouring countries and hapless fall-guys for other criminals.

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Pemberton and Corrigan's military backgrounds and what Corrigan calls their "freelance" work was known; with their Western pedigree this gave them a quasi-celebrity status.

One influential prisoner got them mattresses, another brought them cheese and other treats to supplement prison food: stews, beans, rice, potato and, occasionally, chicken.

Prisoners were put in charge of each cell. Though cramped, the cells were kept clean with the disinfectant inmates were forced to buy with cigarettes, the prison currency. The men also "bought" paint to help repaint the prison.

Pemberton and Corrigan were worried that other prisoners would assume from their kidnapping of minors charges that they were paedophiles.

But no one directly challenged them.

Contact with the outside world was erratic and cryptic because the phones were tapped. At one point, the men thought they could be facing 15 years in jail.

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Corrigan's darkest moments came on the January birthdays of his two sons, during a virulent bout of flu, and in the windowless, dungeon-like holding cells where the men were kept before Roumieh.

The men had been tortured by police, but were left alone in jail. The police torture entailed "attention slapping" - repeated slapping about the face to inflict pain and fear, in a series of hour-long interrogations.

As Pemberton and Corrigan crossed paths in the prison cells between "shifts", they smiled or winked at each other to keep morale up.

In Australia and New Zealand, the two men's partners co-ordinated massive efforts to extricate them. A team of other "freelancers" were on standby to help orchestrate an escape if legal avenues failed.

On their release, Pemberton observed to Corrigan, "Both of us had our good days and our bad days inside."

Corrigan returned to a six-figure debt and had counselling to help him reassimilate.

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AFTER A

mother's living nightmare, Melissa Hawach has resumed her life. She has a baby son with a new partner. Her daughters, Hannah and Cedar, are back in touch with their father via Skype.

Emailing from Canada, she explains he had to apologise to them as a condition of the renewed contact.

They remember little of the Lebanese drama - "overall they recall their time there as a holiday with their dad" - but she has made sure they know about the Australasians who delivered them back to her.

"They will forever be heroes in my family."

In her book Flight of the Dragonfly, she recalls Pemberton trying to ease her tension by asking riddles or doing puzzles with her while they watched her daughters from a cold unit at the resort, sitcom Diff'rent Strokes playing on cable in the background.

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"He was so calm and it was comforting. Simon and Mike ... were sympathetic towards my situation, always seemed calm and were very kind."

She says the label "mercenary" does not fit what they did for her.

"It implies men who will do any act for large sums of money and do so by force and without emotion. None of that fits and it is insulting. There are no words to describe how my family and I feel for what they did for my children."

Corrigan is also at pains to distance himself from mercenaries in his book. The rescue was last-minute, high-risk and improvised after Melissa scotched an earlier plan for the men to remove the girls without her being present. "I didn't have to stay and put the team at risk," Corrigan writes. "It certainly wasn't a mercenary act."

In a rare sour note in Corrigan's book, he remarks that Melissa never personally thanked him or Pemberton. By email, Melissa explains this may have arisen from crossed lines.

When she contacted Corrigan's partner shortly after his release, she said he was not ready to talk. "I took that as a polite way to part ways. I obviously misinterpreted the call and I cannot express how sorry I am for that.

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"I thought that I expressed my gratitude in my interviews and in my book but I obviously failed. Words cannot express how grateful I am to these men."

PEMBERTON COULD

not be reached for comment on this story. He and his partner Dawn Fuller are based in Napier. He has four children - two with Fuller and two from a previous relationship.

From 1984 to 2004 he served in the New Zealand Army, initially training as a vehicle mechanic and rising to the elite Special Air Service (SAS). In 2005 he worked in Iraq as a security guard for a private firm, one of some 20,000 security staff in the country.

In a Christmas email sent shortly before his capture, he said he hoped to settle down in the new year.

His close friend Oiroa Kaihau served with him in the army and was coincidentally posted to the Iraqi city where Pemberton was based.

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"We never talked about the tougher things he might have got up to in Iraq," Kaihau says.

"People are quite secretive - you learn not to ask."

Physically fit, mentally tough, easy to get along with, Pemberton was well-liked and driven. "He was motivated to be the best he could be."