SHAFAQNA – A British headteacher has been reunited with his family after being freed by militants who had held him hostage in Libya for five months. David Bolam, the principal at the now-closed International School Benghazi, was abducted while on a shopping trip in May. Local political factions secured his release on Thursday in a deal reported to have involved the payment of a ransom.
The Foreign Office, which asked news organisations not to publish details of the abduction until his release, was not involved in the negotiations, although Libyan sources said it was kept informed.
Bolam, 53, from Craven Arms, Shropshire, had elected to stay in Benghazi despite a wave of attacks on foreigners, including the murder of the school’s chemistry teacher Ronnie Smith, an American, in December.
The school announced Bolam’s “disappearance in mysterious circumstances” on its Facebook page on 19 May, days after nationalist forces led by retired general Khalifa Hiftar began attacks and air strikes on Islamist militias.
The Foreign Office asked news outlets, including the Guardian, not to publish details of the abduction, fearing it could harm negotiations for his release.
Ged O’Connor Challis, who worked with Bolam at the international school until December 2013, said Bolam was “single-minded and stubborn” and had decided to stay in the country despite growing violence.
He told the BBC he had spoken to Bolam on the phone on the morning he was abducted and had later been told by school staff that “one of the local militias had grabbed David as he went out shopping”.
O’Connor Challis said many teachers had left the school after a “massive gunfight” in November 2013 and the fatal shooting of Smith the following month. Bolam, however, decided to stay because he “believed in what he was doing”.
“He is single-minded and stubborn,” O’Connor Challis said. “He is a very bright person. He is an English teacher – one of the best I have ever met.”
On 28 August, Bolam appeared in a video published on the internet pleading for David Cameron to secure his release. Bolam looked dishevelled with an unkempt grey beard and baggy white T-shirt in the video, in which he begged the prime minister to agree to a hostage swap.
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 video he talked about a recent prisoner swap with the US, believed to be the exchange of five Afghan Taliban officials with the captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl.
The British government once again requested a media blackout and Libyan officials speculated that the video was a sign of nervousness from Bolam’s captors, anxious to get a cash deal before an expected government offensive to capture Benghazi.
For much of Bolam’s four-month captivity British officials had reason to fear the worst, with Benghazi militants having established a reputation for targeting westerners.
In June 2012, former British ambassador Sir Dominic Asquith survived a rocket and machine gun attack on a diplomatic convoy outside the gates of the British consulate, in which two bodyguards were wounded by an anti-tank missile. Three months later the US ambassador Chris Stevens and three staff were killed when Islamist forces overran the nearby American consulate.
Attacks on French, Italian and Swedish diplomats made the city a no-go zone to foreigners by the end of last year. On 17 May Hiftar launched attacks backed by air strikes on Ansar al-Sharia, the militia the US blames for the death of ambassador Stevens. Bolam was kidnapped the following day.
Tensions rose further in June when Ansar al-Sharia formally rejected democracy and declared the city an Islamic emirate. On 14 June US Delta Force commandos took advantage of a sustained Libyan air force bombardment of militant bases to capture the Ansar al-Sharia commander Ahmed Abu Khattala, blamed by Washington for orchestrating the consulate attack.
By mid-summer, it was clear Bolam was being held by a small militia outside Benghazi that was demanding money in exchange for his safety. Officials feared he would otherwise be handed to more extremist forces in the city.
In August Ansar al-Sharia captured four army bases, while Islamist led forces captured the capital, Tripoli and the parliament fled to the eastern town of Tobruk. There was speculation in Libya that Britain might follow America’s example and send special forces to Benghazi, though London insisted it remained committed to a peaceful resolution.
Bolam’s fortunes may have changed as a result of events on the battlefield, as government forces formed a ring around Benghazi and air strikes on the port denied Ansar al-Sharia ammunition deliveries.
While details remain unclear, Bolam’s release happened during a lull in the fighting early last week, and by Thursday he was back in the UK with his family.
On the same day, Ansar al-Sharia launched its heaviest attack of the summer, a four-day offensive aimed at securing the airport that has left more than 41 soldiers dead, many of them killed by two suicide car bombs.
Libyan air strikes and artillery fire have repulsed the offensive, leaving Ansar al-Sharia holding the city but increasingly concerned with winning control of the airport as ammunition stocks run low.
It is not known which militant group was holding Bolam, but the video was claimed to have been released by a group that called itself Jeish al-Islam (Army of Islam). However, the SITE intelligence firm, which monitors jihadist groups on the internet, could not verify identity of the militants behind the video when it was released.
Bolam was vice-principal of the International School in Benghazi when he was abducted. He was previously headteacher of Hartlebury school, near Kidderminster, where his wife, Marion, was a teacher.
Michael Aron, the UK’s ambassador to Libya, tweeted after Bolam’s release: “Delighted Benghazi Head Teacher David Bolam has been released after over 4 months in captivity”.
The Foreign Office said: “We are glad that David Bolam is safe and well after his ordeal, and that he has been reunited with his family. We have been supporting his family since he was taken. We do not comment on the detail of hostage cases. The family have asked for privacy.
“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.”
Source : http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/05/british-headteacher-david-bolam-freed-libya