Rory Carroll, the Guardian journalist kidnapped in Baghdad on Wednesday, was freed last night after 36 hours in captivity in a dark underground cell.
Carroll phoned the Guardian to confirm that his captors, whom he described as Shia opportunists, had released him into the hands of the Iraqi government.
The end came when one of his captors received a mobile phone call and unbolted the door to the cell, telling him he was free to go. "He put me in the boot of his car and drove me alone and dropped me in the middle of Baghdad," Carroll said.
Last night he was under the protection of the Iraqi government in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
"I'm sitting having a beer and I feel absolutely fine - both physically and psychologically. I've been very well treated, apart from a bit of initial roughness when they first took me," he said.
Carroll, 33, who has been in Iraq for nine months, had been in Sadr City, a Shia-dominated district of Baghdad on Wednesday, interviewing a victim of Saddam Hussein. He was snatched by gunmen as he was leaving the home of the interviewee.
"They took me in a car and after 20 minutes switched me to the boot of another one. They stripped me of all my own clothes and dressed me in old clothes."
He said he had been handcuffed and held in a room beneath a family home in Baghdad for 36 hours. "It was a darkened room, a concrete passageway beneath the ground floor. I only had a rug and pillow. They allowed me out twice for food."
"They were Shia," he said. "At one point I was told I would be used as a bargaining chip in exchange for [Shia cleric Moqtada] al-Sadr people taken in Basra. My fear was that I would be sold on to the Sunni or Islamist groups."
Speaking about his release last night, he said: "I heard a captor in the corridor answer his mobile. He laughed and sounded relieved and opened the bolted door and said, 'I am going to let you go'."
Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, said: "We're overjoyed that Rory has been released safe and sound. We'd like to thank all those in London, Dublin and Iraq who played a role in freeing him. Both the British and Irish governments have been extremely helpful - as have many journalistic colleagues around the world and sympathetic groups and individuals in Baghdad."
A campaign had been building up in support of Carroll, an Irish citizen. Muslims, Roman Catholic and Protestant clerics, as well as the Irish and British governments had called for and worked for his freedom.
Lara Marlowe, the Irish Times correspondent in Baghdad, told the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, that a few of Rory's friends had gathered in his office in his hotel, waiting for a phone call. "It is a huge relief, everyone here is happy and celebrating his freedom."
Elation and relief swept through the Carroll family home in Dublin too. "He was so calm on the phone. He sounded like he'd just got back from a trip to the shops," said his mother, Kathy, who celebrated her birthday yesterday. Sister Karina marks her birthday today. The champagne was flowing last night.
"We couldn't quite believe it," said Joe Carroll. "After two awful days of sitting around waiting for something to happen, to hear his voice on the line was beyond our wildest dreams. We never lost hope, we've had prayers and good wishes come in from all over Ireland and beyond, and we'd just like to thank everyone who called and everyone who worked so hard to get Rory free."
The Carrolls praised the efforts of the Irish and British governments as well as the many members of the international media who had offered assistance.
Among the visitors to the Carroll home yesterday was the Irish foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, who had informed the family of the five-man delegation the government had planned to send to Baghdad today to negotiate Rory's release.
Mr Ahern said of the Irish effort to free Carroll: "We had quite good contacts. We were also using a lot of our EU partners, particularly Britain, France and Italy ... The British were excellent in all that they did in getting us to the right contacts in order to speak to the right people to insist that Rory was Irish and not British."
"I am utterly delighted for Rory Carroll and his family," Mr Ahern said.
There were warm wishes from unexpected quarters too. The Iranian government had issued a rare plea calling for his immediate release. The government, whose relations with the US and Britain have been more strained than usual during the past few months, had offered its prayers for his safe release.
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent cleric based in Qatar, said the Union of Islamic Scholars, which he presides over, "has always denounced these kidnappings, especially those carried out against journalists".
He added: "The Guardian newspaper is well-known for its professional reporting and its fair coverage of the rights of oppressed peoples and just causes around the world."
Inayat Bunglawala, a representative of the Muslim Council of Britain, had joined the calls. "All leading Islamic authorities have made it clear that kidnapping journalists is unhelpful and harmful to the Iraqi people," he said.
"The Guardian is deeply respected within the British Muslim community for its balanced coverage of the Middle East and for providing a platform for a range of voices."
In Baghdad, meanwhile, Iraqi journalists held an impromptu memorial service yesterday for Muhammad Haroon, 37, the editor of al-Hakeka newspaper, who was killed by unknown gunmen on Monday. The paper had been critical of the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition's presence in Iraq.
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