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Iraq shoe-thrower flies out after release

world Updated: Sep 16, 2009 01:37 IST
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The Iraqi television reporter jailed for throwing his shoes at former US president George W. Bush was freed on Tuesday and briefly went into hiding fearing for his life, one of his brothers said.

He later flew to Syria on a private jet en route to Greece where he will undergo medical treatment.

Muntazer al-Zaidi had been behind bars since he shouted "it is the farewell kiss, you dog," at Bush last December 14, seconds before hurling his size-10s at the man who ordered the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In his first remarks Zaidi -- missing a front tooth -- told reporters he had been tortured by electric shocks and simulated drowning while in custody.

He defiantly defended his actions but denied he should be seen as a hero, saying he had been ashamed of the suffering he had seen in Iraq and had merely seized the opportunity to insult the man he held responsible.

"For me it was a good response; what I wanted to do in throwing my shoes in the face of the criminal Bush was to express my rejection of his lies and of the occupation of my country," Zaidi said.

One of the reporter's brothers told AFP that Zaidi then went to a secret location. "He is in an undisclosed place because we fear for his life," Uday al-Zaidi said.

Later Uday told AFP the reporter had flown out to Syria before heading to Greece for medical treatment.

"My brother has left the country 10 minutes ago on a private jet that will take him to Damascus," Uday al-Zaidi said of the flight that left at 1820 GMT.

The aircraft was chartered by the chief executive of Zaidi's employer, Al-Baghdadia television.

Speaking earlier at the Al-Baghdadia office, Zaidi said: "At the time that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on television that he could not sleep without being reassured on my fate... I was being tortured in the worst ways, beaten with electric cables and iron bars."

He said he wanted an apology from Maliki, adding that guards had also used simulated drowning on him -- the water-boarding technique used by the Americans on suspects arrested over the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"I am now free but my country is still captive," he said. "I feel humiliated to see my country suffer, my Baghdad burning, and my people killed."

Zaidi's family and friends ululated when they heard the news of his release by telephone at their Baghdad home and had prepared a sheep for slaughter in celebration.

But the reunion was delayed as Zaidi underwent medical checks. Relatives said he was exhausted and his reason for going abroad was to seek medical care.

"Muntazer will go to Greece for medical treatment, because he was injected with unknown chemical drugs and he suffers from a continuous headache," said his cousin, Haidar al-Zaidi.

The reporter was due to have been released on Monday but his brothers and sisters were left in tears when legal red tape delayed his homecoming.

Zaidi was initially sentenced to three years for assaulting a foreign head of state, but had this reduced to one year on appeal. His sentence was cut further for good behaviour.

Although Bush laughed off the attack in which he successfully ducked to avoid the flying footwear, the incident caused massive embarrassment, to both him and Maliki.

The leaders had been speaking at a news conference in Baghdad on what was Bush's farewell visit to Iraq before he was succeeded in office by then president-elect Barack Obama.

Zaidi now faces the prospect of a very different life from his previous existence as a journalist for Al-Baghdadia, a small privately owned Cairo-based station, which continued to pay his salary when he was in jail.

His boss has promised the previously little-known reporter a new home as a reward for loyalty and the publicity his actions generated for the station.

But there is also talk of plum job offers from bigger Arab networks, lavish gifts such as sports cars from businessmen, guaranteed celebrity status and reports that Arab women from Baghdad to the Gaza Strip want to marry him.

Zaidi, from Iraq's Shiite majority, had also been kidnapped in Baghdad and held by unknown captors for three days in 2007 and then detained for one day by US forces at the beginning of 2008, according to his brother.