Gaddafi loyalists free Western journalists being held in hotel in Tripoli

August 24, 2011

The scariest moments, said Matthew Chance, weren’t when bullets were whizzing by the windows or when mortars were bursting outside the front doors. Bad enough, but Chance’s greatest fears swelled during his brief encounters with the Libyan gunmen holding him and 34 others captive inside a palatial hotel in Tripoli.

“They were very aggressive,” said Chance, a CNN correspondent, by phone Wednesday. “They accused us of being spies. They would say, ‘I suppose you journalists are happy now because Libyans are killing Libyans.’ . . . When someone holding a Kalashnikov accuses you of that, it can be quite unnerving.”

The fear and uncertainty ended for Chance and other journalists at the Rixos al Nasr Hotel in Tripoli late Wednesday when forces loyal to deposed Libyan ruler Moammar Gaddafi released them and walked away after five tense days of confinement.

Among those set free was the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, the District’s former delegate in Congress, who apparently was in Tripoli hoping to arrange peace negotiations. Chance said Fauntroy, 78, was among those who safely left the hotel in a convoy arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The captives — most of whom represented international news organizations — were barred from leaving the hotel by about a dozen young men who stood guard in the Rixos’s marble lobby and roamed its corridors armed with assault rifles. Food and water dwindled over the course of the ordeal, forcing the captives to ration whatever they could scavenge from the hotel’s stocks. Air conditioning was intermittent, as was electricity, cutting off the journalists’ contact with the world outside.

The Libyan guards’ isolation was apparent, too; they appeared to believe their country was still controlled by Gaddafi even after rebels had stormed his compound about a mile from the Rixos.

While officials from the Red Cross tried to broker an end to the stalemate from outside the hotel, CNN producer Jomana Karadsheh tried to reason with her captors inside. Karadsheh, a Jordanian, told the men in Arabic that Gaddafi’s 42-year regime was crumbling.

She also told one of them, “I really miss my family and want to see them,” she said on CNN on Wednesday. The guard, who had told Karadsheh about his own family, “had tears in his eyes at that moment. I sat with him and told him things are changing out there. I said, ‘You have to think of your kids. You have to let us go.’ It was a slow process, a messy one.”

The reporters, many of whom wore body armor and helmets, left the hotel around 4:30 p.m. Tripoli time in the company of Red Cross officials. They were driven through rebel checkpoints — one a mere 150 meters from the hotel — and taken to another hotel, the Corinthia, in a safe area. They were reunited with friends and fellow journalists amid hugs and tears.

Fauntroy, a longtime civil rights activist, retired two years ago as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood. He remains a member of the church. A church employee said she had no information about his condition, but Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who succeeded Fauntroy as the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said in a statement that Fauntroy is expected to leave Libya soon.

The die-hards who occupied the Rixos, one of the last remaining groups of Gaddafi loyalists, firmly believed their leader’s assurances that the rebels were being defeated — at least until Wednesday.

The hotel had been home to several Libyan officials and their families, including the “minders” who shadowed journalists every time they left the hotel’s grounds. But the officials fled as the rebels approached the city, leaving behind only the armed guards.

The loyalists’ hostility as the rebels closed in raised fears among the journalists that “this could go very badly for us,” said Chance in an interview. “Up till then it was a very frustrating experience, but it became terrifying very quickly. The regime was disintegrating and we started to worry, ‘What will these guys do? What are their orders? Are they going to execute us or use us as human shields or what?’  ”

The reporters met regularly to discuss escape routes and to plan negotiating strategies. They huddled in interior hallways while the sounds of the battle they had come to cover echoed outside the two-story hotel.

At one point, “We were in the dining room making a big pot of tea when a sniper put two rounds through the window,” said Fox News video journalist Paul Roubicek, according to the Associated Press.

Among the last of the journalists captured was New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick, who was ordered out of a car at gunpoint when he pulled up to the hotel earlier Wednesday. His driver was held on the ground by an armed guard as Kirkpatrick and two others were taken inside the hotel.

One woman from a U.S. news organization was crying as she was reunited with her colleagues at the Corinthia on Wednesday.

“They really drew us into their bubble,” she said. “They made us think that they were winning. They told us there were thousands of Gaddafi fighters in the forest behind the Rixos. They even said the Libyan air force was defeating NATO.”

A Red Cross spokeswoman, Hana Salah, said the organization helped mediate an end to the situation. Salah described the Red Cross negotiations as tense.

“The Libyan military was comfortable with the Red Cross mediating,” she said, but “they were young, armed men who were quite nervous.”

The peaceful conclusion to the standoff in Tripoli came around the same time that four Italian journalists were reported abducted near Zawiya, a city in northwestern Libya, apparently by pro-Gadaffi forces, the Associated Press reported. The journalists’ driver was killed.

Two of the kidnapped Italian journalists are from Corriere della Sera, another is from La Stampa and the fourth is a correspondent for the Catholic newspaper Avvenire, according to Agence France-Presse. The journalists have been named in the Italian media as Elisabetta Rosaspina and Giuseppe Sarcina (of Corriere della Sera), Domenico Quirico (of La Stampa) and Claudio Monici (from Avvenire).

Corriere della Sera said Italy’s foreign ministry is working to secure their relase.

Staff writers Thomas Erdbrink in Tripoli and Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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