Peter Moore, the Briton kidnapped in Baghdad more than two-and-a-half years ago, was freed yesterday just hours after a militia leader and 13 of his followers were handed over by the Americans to Iraqi authorities.
The 36-year-old computer consultant's first words as he arrived at the embassy in Baghdad were: "Thank God, you are the first British faces I have seen for years, I just want to cry."
The only known survivor from the group of five British hostages then requested to be taken to the canteen to have some English food before talking to his family on the telephone.
Mr Moore's release ended 31 months in captivity, during which accusations and recriminations have flown. The remains of three of the bodyguards snatched with him at the Iraqi finance ministry in May 2007 were delivered to the British embassy earlier this year. The fourth guard is also believed to be dead.
The Independent has learnt that Mr Moore told diplomats he had been separated from the other captives and held in solitary confinement since December 2007. During the long months which followed he learnt about the murders of the other Britons and remained unsure until the very end of his ordeal whether he would suffer the same fate.
When he was taken out blindfolded from the room where he was being kept in the early hours of yesterday morning, he feared he was going to be killed. The staff at the Baghdad embassy had just half an hour's notice before he arrived in a convoy of black limousines at 10.35am yesterday.
His stepmother, Pauline Sweeney, said Mr Moore sounded remarkably jovial during their telephone call, and was "in good spirits and cracking jokes". Her husband, Frank, said he collapsed in laughter when the freed man asked whether they had saved him any Christmas dinner.
Two hours before the Lincolnshire man was ushered to freedom, Qais al-Khazali, leader of the group Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous), had been handed over by US forces to the Iraqi government, along with some of his senior lieutenants. They were the last of 162 members of the organisation to be released under a process which began in late September.
It is not clear whether al-Khazali will be freed by the Iraqi government, although a spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, suggested that he would. "Al-Khazali and other suspects formerly in US custody have been handed over to the Iraqi government. Any suspects without evidence for a prosecution will be released," he said. Al-Khazali's brother was released from US then Iraqi custody in June.
Mr Moore, who had been working as an IT consultant for the Iraqi finance ministry, was kidnapped along with his bodyguards – Alec MacLachlan from Llanelli, Jason Swindlehurst from Skelmersdale, and Alan McMenemy and Jason Creswell from Glasgow – on 29 May 2007, by armed men in Iraqi police uniform. The circumstances of the raid, in a heavily fortified location, led to charges of official collusion. The bodies of Mr Swindlehurst and Mr Creswell were returned to the UK in June, and that of Mr MacLachlan in September. Mr McMenemy is also thought to have been killed.
Gordon Brown said: "I am hugely relieved by the wonderful news that Peter has been freed. At this moment of celebration, we also remember the families of British hostages who have been killed in Iraq and elsewhere. And we pledge to continue to do everything we can to bring British hostages back to their loved ones, including the remaining hostage of the group in Iraq. I demand that the hostage-takers return him to us."
Mr Moore's father, Graeme, had been highly critical of the British Government's efforts to get his son and the others released, accusing officials of "washing their hands of what happened to these men" and "deliberately keeping him in the dark" about what was going on. Last night, he said: "We are so relieved and we just want to get him home, back now to his family and friends. I'm breaking down, I'm just so overjoyed for the lad. It's been such a long haul."
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that Mr Moore's freedom had been made possible by the Iraqi government's process of national reconciliation with armed groups prepared to renounce violence. "I hope it will lead also to the end to the scourge of hostage-taking and violence in that country," he said.
Mr Moore's release had been predicted to take place during the Muslim festival of Eid, which this year fell in November, but negotiations were fraught, with his captors at one stage breaking off talks because of delays in freeing al-Khazali. The group's envoy, Salam al-Maliki, accused the US of attempting to sabotage the deal.