Boston: An American held captive for seven months in North Korea stepped off a plane in his hometown on Friday, looking thin but joyful as he hugged the former US president who had helped win his release and family and friends surrounded him in a group embrace.
Aijalon Gomes was accompanied by former president Jimmy Carter, who had flown to Pyongyang to negotiate his freedom. The 31-year-old, who had been teaching English in South Korea, was imprisoned and sentenced to eight years` hard labour for crossing into the North from China on January 25 for unknown reasons.
North Korea`s state-run news agency reported last month that Gomes had attempted suicide, leading his family to ask for his release on humanitarian grounds. North Korea said this week it would release Gomes to Carter if the former president came to get him.
Gomes hugged Carter and then his mother before his loved ones encircled him, praying and waving their hands skyward while two people held a banner behind them that read: "Welcome home. Salvation is ours."
In a statement released earlier on Friday, the family thanked Carter and said it felt blessed to welcome Gomes home after what it called "a long, dark and difficult period”.
"I`m just joyful and grateful that my son is home, and thank president Jimmy Carter for making sure that he was home safely," Gomes` mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, said as she left her home for the airport. "I thank God, I thank God, for everything everyone has done for us."
The family also thanked the North Korean government "for caring for Aijalon during his darkest days, then agreeing to release him on humanitarian grounds."
The statement requested privacy so Gomes could recover from the ordeal, saying that although he was returning home, "the journey towards healing really just begins today”. The family passed by media microphones at the airport without commenting.
In Washington, the State Department welcomed the news of Gomes` release, saying officials are "relieved that he will soon be safely reunited with his family”, spokesman PJ Crowley said.