U.S. Tomahawk missiles crashed down on Libya and French fighter jets screeched across the sky. Moammar Gaddafi, the flamboyant Libyan dictator, vowed he’d fight “a long war.” It was just the kind of weekend when newspapers turn to their most seasoned war correspondents. But one marquee byline was conspicuously missing from the New York Times: Anthony Shadid.
The star correspondent — twice a Pulitzer Prize winner for his work at The Washington Post — and three of his colleagues had been taken captive by forces loyal to Gaddafi four days before the air strikes began. As the bombs started to fall they were still being held, despite a concerted diplomatic effort to win their release by Turkish and British diplomats, and assurances from their captors that they would be freed.
“They changed their minds,” Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, said of the Libyan captors in an interview on Monday. “They said they could not do it under the circumstances.”
In the end, the Libyans — even as they remained under attack by an international coalition — seem to have kept their word. On Monday, the four Times journalists — Shadid, photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario and videographer Stephen Farrell — crossed the border into Tunisia after being handed over to Turkish diplomats who had played a key role in winning their release. “A Huge relief,” Times Executive Editor Bill Keller tweeted. Five minutes later, though, he tweeted a more sobering message: “1 cloud: unknow[n] fate of their driver, Mohamed Shaglouf.” Keller did not respond to an interview request.
The four freed journalists appear to be in good health, the Times said in a statement, and the newspaper is setting about reuniting them with their families. They spent their first moments of freedom at the Turkish embassy in Tripoli, eating and drinking coffee, Tan said. Two of the journalists specifically asked for “Turkish coffee,” Tan was happy to note. Addario called her husband from the cellphone of Levent Sahinkaya, the Turkish ambassador in Tripoli, he said. Three of the journalists had no travel documents when they were released, but have been issued special travel documents by Turkish officials, Tan said.
But late Monday other media were still waiting for news. Agence France-Presse said two of its reporters — Dave Clark and Roberto Schmidt — are still missing, along with a Getty Images photographer, Joe Raedle. And Al-Jazeera says four of its employees are detained by Libyan authorities.
In addition to the Al-Jazeera, Getty and AFP journalists, six Libyan news reporters are either missing or are being detained in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization based in New York. The six wrote or spoke critically of Gaddafi, the organization said. “We call on Libyan authorities to release those journalists in their custody and to assist in efforts to locate those who are missing,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon said.
The drama for the Times reporters began March 15 when the four journalists were arrested at a checkpoint outside rebel-held Ajdabiya by pro-Gaddafi troops, according to an account posted on the Times Web site. At that point, Shadid had filed 10 stories in 10 days, the last — headlined “Qaddafi Forces Routing Rebels” — datelined Ajdabiya. “Blasts of incoming fire came every few seconds at the edge of this city straddling a strategic highway intersection, where rebels have bulldozed berms and filled hundreds of sandbags around two metal green arches marking the western approaches to the city,” Shadid wrote.
The Times has said Shadid and the others entered the country without visas, a common practice among journalists covering the ongoing uprising — though a risky one that can expose them to possible detention.
After taking the Times group into custody, the pro-Gaddafi troops came under attack and a gun battle broke out, the Times reported; once the shooting stopped, the journalists were driven to the Gaddafi stronghold of Surt and later were flown by military plane to the capital, Tripoli.
Initially, their whereabouts were unknown. They were thought to be missing until Thursday, when Keller said the newspaper “learned through channels” that they were being held by pro-Gaddafi forces. On Friday, the Times reported that they would be released. But then came the bombing.
On Saturday, Tan said, the U.S. government asked Turkish diplomats to intervene in hopes of securing the release. The request was approved by Turkey’s prime minister and president, Tan said.
The diplomatic maneuvering took place as U.S. and coalition forces pounded Libya with more than 110 Tomahawk missiles and French fighter jets flew sorties into the country. Sahinkaya, the Turkish ambassador, “made quite an effort during the bombardment” to secure the release of the journalists, Tan said. But it was to no avail until Monday morning, shortly after midnight in Tripoli, when the Gaddafi loyalists turned over the Times journalists to Turkish officials. After their respite in the Turkish embassy, the journalists were taken by armored car on the 31 / 2-hour drive to Tunisia.
All that was left to do was the celebrating. The Turkish Foreign Ministry sent out a photo. In it, Sahinkaya poses surrounded by the journalists he helped free. Shadid stands in jeans and a sports coat, on his face the faintest hint of a smile.