AN IRISHMAN fled al-Qa'ida terrorists after making a desperate dash for freedom with explosives strapped to his neck.
Stephen McFaul, a 36-year-old father-of-one, was abducted with up to 41 foreign oil workers from a remote BP gas field in Algeria.
But today he is getting ready to return to his overjoyed family after a dramatic escape amid a bloody battle between the Algerian army and kidnappers.
His family admitted that "luck" was the only reason that Mr McFaul had escaped, as the vehicle he was in avoided being blown up in an Algerian air strike.
Mr McFaul's dramatic escape came as it emerged that 34 hostages were dead and at least eight Islamist militants had also been killed.
As many as 25 foreign captives and 600 Algerians were reported to have been freed -- or to have escaped -- from their captors.
Mr McFaul made a run for safety with "Semtex strapped to his neck", his brother Brian said last night.
Once out of danger he rang his wife Angela in Belfast and ended two days of dread with the words: "I'm free love, I'm free."
It emerged the oil company manager had risked his life by secretly telephoning and texting his family while still being held.
Once he was freed, his 13-year-old son Dylan said he would "never let him go back there" and just wanted to give him a "big hug".
However, there are growing fears for another man from Northern Ireland who was reported to have been among the hostages.
None of those still being held have been named.
Last night the biggest hostage crisis to involve western victims for decades appeared to be nearing a bloody end amid growing international anger over Algeria's handling of the situation.
Mr McFaul's family had been preparing for the worst as news of the bloodbath filtered through. His brother Brian said: "We found out that al-Qa'ida were taking five jeeps out of the compound when the Algerian army bombed the compound.
"Out of those five jeeps, four were wiped out. Stephen's jeep was the only jeep that wasn't bombed; it crashed and Stephen made a run for it – with Semtex strapped to his neck.
"We still don't know all the details about what happened yet; all we know is that he made it out – if that isn't luck for you I don't know what is."
"It's a lot to take in for the family but at least we know he is safe and well."
The 42-year-old said his brother phoned his wife Angela as soon as he was released to tell her he was safe and had been taken to a secure location. "He didn't want to worry her or their children, but I don't think she'll let him go back to Algeria after that," he added.
"We're just waiting to get him home now. He's been through a terrible ordeal and it's going to take him a long time to get over it. We were so relieved to hear that Stephen is unharmed – but he had a very close shave with death.
"On Wednesday night they made him sleep with his mouth taped up, his hands tied and they put Semtex round his neck."
One of the kidnap leaders, Abu al-Baraa, was also among those killed, and the terrorists warned that the remaining hostages would be "blown up" if the army moved in.
In an earlier telephone interview with Al Jazeera early yesterday, an Irishman, believed to be Mr McFaul, said: "The situation is deteriorating" as firing took place outside the gas-field compound.