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Libya releases 4 Times journalists

New York Times journalists (from left) Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks flanked Levent Sahinkaya, Turkey’s ambassador to Libya, along with Lynsey Addario and Anthony Shadid. New York Times journalists (from left) Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks flanked Levent Sahinkaya, Turkey’s ambassador to Libya, along with Lynsey Addario and Anthony Shadid. (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AFP)
By Jeremy W. Peters
New York Times / March 22, 2011

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NEW YORK — The Libyan government released four New York Times journalists yesterday, six days after they were captured while covering the conflict between government and rebel forces in the eastern city of Ajdabiya. They were released into the custody of Turkish diplomats and crossed safely into Tunisia in the late afternoon.

Like many Western journalists, the four had entered the rebel-controlled eastern region of Libya over the Egyptian border without visas to cover the insurrection against Moammar Khadafy. They were detained by forces loyal to Khadafy in Ajdabiya.

The journalists are Anthony Shadid, the Times’s Beirut bureau chief and former staffer at The Boston Globe who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting; two photographers, Tyler Hicks, and Lynsey Addario, who have extensive experience in war zones; and a reporter and videographer, Stephen Farrell, who in 2009 was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan and was rescued by British commandos.

After The New York Times reported having lost contact with the journalists last Tuesday, officials with the Khadafy government pledged that if they had been detained by the government’s military forces, they would be located and released unharmed.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, wrote in a note to the newsroom that he was overjoyed at the news.

“Because of the volatile situation in Libya, we’ve kept our enthusiasm and comments in check until they were out of the country, but now feels like a moment for celebration,’’ he wrote.

“We’re particularly indebted to the government of Turkey, which intervened on our behalf to oversee the release of our journalists and bring them to Tunisia. We were also assisted throughout the week by diplomats from the United States and United Kingdom.’’

A clearer account of their capture and detention has come to light now that the four journalists have been released from Libyan custody.

On Tuesday, the journalists were leaving the front lines of the clashes between pro-Khadafy forces and rebels in and around Ajdabiya. As they attempted to drive east toward the relative safety of the rebel capital of Benghazi, they approached a new checkpoint. It belonged to a group of Khadafy fighters who detained them.

The Khadafy forces then suddenly came under fire from rebels, and a gunfight ensued. When the fight let up, the journalists’ captors drove them along a coastal road until they reached the Khadafy stronghold of Surt. From there, they were flown in a military aircraft to Tripoli.

On Thursday afternoon the Libyan government informed the Times through various channels that the journalists were in the custody of Libyan authorities and would be freed soon. They were allowed a phone call to their families that night.

They were turned over to Turkish diplomats yesterday afternoon, and began the long drive to the border with Tunisia.

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