Libya frees four Western journalists

Four Western journalists who had been detained in Libya for weeks were freed Wednesday after a trial in which they were found guilty of entering the country without visas.

American journalists Clare Morgana Gillis and James Foley, Spanish photojournalist Manuel Varela and British journalist Nigel Chandler were fined 200 Libyan dinars (about $150), given one-year commuted prison sentences and sent to a hotel in Tripoli where other Western journalists are staying. Varela also goes by the professional name Manu Brabo.

The four spent several hours at the hotel before retiring somewhere else for the night and made only brief remarks to the journalists based there. They appeared tired, and Chandler had several red marks on his arms of unclear origin.

“The last two weeks were good,” Chandler said. As for the previous weeks in captivity, “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. The four, all freelance journalists, were scheduled to travel to Tunisia on Thursday before going home.

Gillis, Foley and Varela were detained near Brega, 482 miles east of Tripoli, on April 5. Chandler was seized separately and had not previously been included on lists of missing journalists. It was unclear precisely when he had been detained.

“I’m really glad you are safe,” said Moussa Ibrahim, chief spokesman for the Libyan government, as the journalists entered the hotel.

But at least 15 other journalists still appear to be held by the Libyan government or are missing inside the country, according to the Committee to Project Journalists.

Also Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Moammar Gaddafi’s wife, Safia, and daughter, Aisha, had crossed into Tunisia several days ago along with other Libyan officials, citing an unnamed Tunisian security source. A phone call to a spokesman for the Tunisian Interior Ministry was not immediately returned, and the report was denied by Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister.

“They are in Tripoli,” Kaim said. People starting rumors are “trying to shake the morale of the people.”

Kaim also said that the top oil official in Libya, Shokri Ghanem, who Libyan rebels have said broke with the regime Tuesday, was in Vienna on official business and had spoken with Libya’s prime minister Tuesday.

“The government is still in touch with him,” Kaim said. But, he said, “at the end of the day, if he wants to resign, that’s his business.” Ghanem made no public comments Wednesday.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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