BOSTON – An American held captive for seven months in North Korea stepped off a plane in his hometown Friday, looking thin but joyful as he hugged the former 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. Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, was imprisoned and sentenced to eight years' hard labor for crossing into the North from China on Jan. 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 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 P.J. Crowley said.
Aijalon Gomes (pronounced EYE'-jah-lahn GOHMZ') grew up the inner-city Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, then headed to college at Bowdoin in Maine before going to South Korea to teach several years after graduating.
Gomes was the fourth American in a year arrested for trespassing in North Korea, which fought the U.S. during the 1950-53 Korean War and does not have diplomatic relations with Washington.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il granted Carter's request to "leniently forgive" Gomes, the state news agency reported Friday.
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested last March and released only after former President Bill Clinton made a similar trip to Pyongyang to plead for their freedom.
It was unclear what prompted Gomes to enter the repressive nation. He may have been emulating fellow Christian Robert Park, who was detained after he crossed into North Korea in December to highlight its human rights record, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Park was expelled some 40 days later after issuing an apology carried by North Korean state media.
Gomes attended rallies in Seoul in January calling for Park's release and was arrested in North Korea just two weeks later.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jay Lindsay in Boston, Matthew Lee in Washington and Carol Druga in Atlanta.