On this day in 1991, the journalist John McCarthy – Britain’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon – was released after more than five years in captivity.
The then 29-year-old McCarthy was on his first foreign assignment for United Press International Television News in Beirut when he was taken hostage by the militant group Islamic Jihad.
A week earlier, Brian Keenan – an Irishman teaching at the American University of Beirut – had also been kidnapped. After spending two months in isolation, the blindfolded, dishevelled, bearded Keenan was thrown into a cell with McCarthy – whose first words to him were: "F*** me, it's Ben Gunn". The two shared a tiny cell for several years and Keenan would later say of the man who became his closest friend: “He was my strength and my soul mate. Without him I don't think I would have made it."
McCarthy’s friends and family – led by his girlfriend, journalist Jill Morrell – campaigned tirelessly for his release under the banner Friends of John McCarthy. In 1987, Church of England envoy Terry Waite travelled to Lebanon to try to secure the release of McCarthy and three other hostages but was himself kidnapped. He would not be freed until November 1991; Keenan would be released in 1990.
In August 1991, following negotiations led by the United Nations’ Giandomenico Picco, Islamic Jihad announced that John McCarthy was being freed in a statement which described him as an "envoy". He had been incarcerated for 1,943 days.
McCarthy was taken under army escort to the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was reunited with his father and brother and gave a statement to the press.
He reported on the “good health and good spirits” of his fellow hostages – Terry Waite and the Americans Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland – noting: “Whatever strength I’ve had to endure the past five years has really come from those men, and before them, Brian Keenan and Frank Reed.”
After thanking all those who had supported and campaigned for him, McCarthy urged: “I appeal to all these kind people to keep up their efforts to end the ordeal of my fellow hostages and all those who are held in similar conditions in the region.”
Among the thousands of well-wishers waiting for him back in Britain was his girlfriend Jill Morrell.
"There were times when it seemed like it would take forever and there were times when it seemed like it had been going on for an eternity,” she said.
“But we all always knew that John would be released one day."