Two freelance journalists released in Somalia Wednesday after 15 months captivity said they were tortured and feared being sold on to hard-line rebels in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.
Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian freelance reporter, and Nigel Brennan, a freelance Australian photojournalist, were kidnapped in Mogadishu in August 2008 as they went to visit a refugee camp outside the capital.
Brennan said their captors were good to them to start with, but conditions worsened as time passed and they feared being handed to members of the rebel group al-Shabaab, which Washington says is al-Qaida's proxy in Somalia.
"They were saying that al-Shabaab was willing to pay half a million dollars for us, and then hold us till they could get whatever they wanted for us," Brennan told Reuters.
"Tonight we were ripped out of our rooms, stripped of everything, told to put on new clothes and then thrown in a car and then driven — we had no idea what was going on," Brennan said by phone from a hotel in Mogadishu.
Both Brennan and Lindhout said they had been tortured. Lindhout told Canada's CTV television from Mogadishu that her ransom had been set at $1 million and her captors were angry because the money was not coming quickly enough.
"I was beaten and I was tortured. It was an extremely, extremely difficult situation," said a tearful Lindhout.
Brennan said he had been pistol-whipped and locked in chains for the past 10 months, ever since the pair tried to escape.
Police spokesman Col. Abdullahi Hassan Barise said Lindhout and Brennan were at a Mogadishu hotel Wednesday with Somali lawmaker Botan Isse Alin. Barise and Alin declined to say if ransom was paid for their release.
"We are happy. Our health is OK. We could not believe that we are free," Lindhout told The Associated Press on the phone. "Tonight is a big day for us. We sent our family and friends a message that we are free and will be with them soon after a long time in captivity."
Another police officer and a lawmaker said that a $700,000 ransom was paid for the journalists' release, the AP reported. They spoke on condition of anonymity. It was not possible to independently verify their claim.
'Happy I'm alive'
A Somali journalist, Abdifatah Mohammed Elmi, who was working as their interpreter, was also kidnapped. Elmi was released in January 2009.
Somalia, which has lacked an effective central government for 18 years, is a dangerous place for foreign aid workers and journalists as they risk being kidnapped and held by gunmen until a ransom is paid.
The Western-backed administration of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is battling al-Shabaab and other rebel groups, and controls little more than a few blocks of the capital.
Kidnapping is a lucrative business for the myriad armed groups in lawless Somalia — and also for the sea piracy gangs that have plagued busy shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa nation for several years and are holding more than 200 hostages.
While foreign hostages are usually released after a ransom has been paid, local aid workers and journalists have been killed this year. Some 19,000 civilians have been killed since an insurgency started in 2007.
The National Union of Somali Journalists welcomed the news of their release. It said the pair were handed over to four Somali members of parliament near a government checkpoint.
"We are very pleased that Amanda and Nigel have been released after all these 15 months of horrible horror. We are also very happy this ordeal ended peacefully," said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ secretary general.
The freed journalists were due to fly to Kenya's capital on Thursday.
"I'm just happy that I'm alive, happy I'm alive and looking forward to seeing my family and trying to pick up the threads of my life," said Brennan.