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Journalists imprisoned in $400-a-night Tripoli hotel

Dozens of us journalists have been trapped for days in the luxury Rixos Hotel, kept there by government enforcers whose weaponry has convinced us of the wisdom of staying put.
/ Source: The Associated Press

We have been in the thick of the fighting, but also cut off from it.

Dozens of us journalists have been trapped for days in the luxury Rixos Hotel, kept there by government enforcers whose weaponry has convinced us of the wisdom of staying put. Once in awhile, though, the news comes to us.

Take the reports that Seif al-Islam, a favored son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and one-time heir-apparent to his desert regime, had been captured by rebel fighters as they stormed through the city.

But here he was, confident and smiling in his camouflage pants and army-green T-shirt, turning up out of the night early Tuesday at the Rixos.

He flashed a big smile and a V-for-victory sign.

"You've missed a great story. So come on with us, we're going to hit the hottest spots in Tripoli," Seif told me.

A group of journalists piled into a second car, and we followed him and his gunmen through the dark as he drove through town. He stopped occasionally to lean from the car and wave to supporters chanting government slogans.

He looked confident and defiant. Along with his father, he is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, but he had a message he wanted to send to the world: Gadhafi was still in power, still fighting, still had support.

We spun off to the entrance to Gadhafi's nearby headquarters, Bab al-Aziziya, where about 200 men, volunteers defending the regime, were waiting for weapons. They were chanting and screaming as they waited for the guns.

Then the gunmen took us back to the hotel.

Back to the $400-a-night prison, with a spa but no power or air conditioning, with candlelight but no romance. With the sound of machine gunfire outside and bullets whistling past the windows, smoke hovering over the Libyan capital.

We might have been in the middle of much of Tripoli's fighting, but we saw little of it close up. Other than that short interlude, we have been here for days, surrounded by the combat.

Journalists sit it out in a hallway as gun-battles continue around the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011. Dozens of journalists remain trapped inside this hotel as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi prevent them from leaving and gun battles with rebel forces continue all around. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)Dario Lopez-Mills / AP

Every modern war has had its hotels serving as de facto media centers, equipped with necessary services such as telecommunications and electricity generators. In Beirut's 1980s civil war, it was the Commodore. In the Balkans, it was Sarajevo's Holiday Inn, and during the U.S. invasion of Iraq it was Baghdad's Palestine Hotel.

The hotels, considered relatively safe in a war zone, often are selected for their rooftop views of combat. They are made known to governments and rebel forces alike in the hope that both sides will deem it in their interest to respect the neutrality of the base and allow journalists to do their jobs.

But it doesn't always work out that way. A hotel on the sidelines at the start of a conflict may suddenly find itself engulfed in fighting. Or a beleaguered government may decide to restrict reporters as part of a propaganda campaign.

The Rixos has been so cut off that we often haven't even been able to tell who was in control of the streets outside. Over the weekend, the area appeared to be in government hands. As rebels approached, our minders got jittery, then belligerent.

One young gunman grew paranoid that journalists were feeding information to the rebels and began threatening us. Others simply left, in some cases shaking hands with reporters and saying goodbye. The government's main spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, departed soon after his German wife and infant.

For a while we were alone. Then the pro-government gunmen returned, surrounding the hotel with heavy weaponry — even as rebels reportedly took Gadhafi's compound a few blocks away. We don't know for sure.

Fighting intensified Tuesday and the smell of gunpowder hangs in the thick heat, along with sweat and a little fear. When the shooting is most intense, we take refuge in the hotel's basement conference rooms.

Two satellite telephones set up on a balcony were destroyed by gunfire, so we've stopped transmitting our material. We wait and worry the gunmen could turn hostile at any moment.

There is no power and no running water. On Monday we ate bread and butter. On Tuesday, the cook made french fries. Bottled water is running low.

We don't know when it's going to end, and we see little of what happens. We weren't there when Bab al-Aziziya was captured less than 24 hours after Seif took us there. He hasn't been seen publicly since then.

So I can tell a story about trapped journalists, but the real story about what is happening to Libya is just out there.

Unfortunately, we can't cover it.