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Dozens of journalists freed in Libya; 4 kidnapped

A Baltimore writer escapes from a Libyan prison Wednesday after dozens of journalists were freed from a Tripoli hotel. Four kidnapped Italian journalists are reported safe.
Image: Jomana Karadsheh and Matthew Chance from CNN are evacuated by the International Red Cross from the Rixos hotel in Tripoli
Jomana Karadsheh, left, a producer for CNN and Matthew Chance, senior international correspondent for CNN, are evacuated by the International Red Cross from the Rixos hotel in Tripoli on Wednesday.Paul Hackett / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A Baltimore writer escaped from a Libyan prison Wednesday shortly after dozens of journalists were freed from a Tripoli hotel.

However, four Italian journalists were kidnapped outside the capital. Officials said they were safe.

The mother of freelance journalist Matthew VanDyke, 31, told NBC station WBAL that her son escaped from the Abu Salim Prison in Tripoli, where he had been held since March, a month after arriving in Libya.

The State Department confirmed earlier this month that he was being held by the Libyan government, but details of what led to his detainment were not clear.

The two spoke by telephone Wednesday, and Sharon VanDyke said her son sounded fine.

"He sounds just like himself. He said. 'Hi Mom,' " Sharon VanDyke told WBAL.

Matthew VanDyke had been held in solitary confinement, but fellow prisoners helped him escape, she said. He "heard some noise and heard men coming to his cell, and he thought he might be executed, but they were Libyan prisoners who had escaped and took him with them," Sharon VanDyke said.

While confined, prisoners with radios would "chant" the news to him, so he was somewhat aware of what was taking place in Libya, she said.

Matthew Van Dyke, 31, was writing a book about his travels in the Arab world.

Freed from Rixos HotelAlso Wednesday, international journalists were freed from the Rixos Hotel after being held for five days by armed men loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The dozens of journalists from the Rixos were taken in Red Cross cars and vans to another Tripoli hotel, where they hugged friends and colleagues, many crying.

The International Committee of the Red Cross was talking to loyalist forces about the journalists' safety on Wednesday when they were suddenly informed that Gadhafi's men were ready to release them.

"We were able to gather everyone in four cars, no problem," said George Comninos, the Red Cross' head of delegation in Tripoli. "Of course, it was still a tense situation."

CNN correspondent Matthew Chance posted on Twitter shortly after he and journalists from several other news organizations left the hotel in a car: "#Rixos crisis ends. All journalists are out! #rixos. "

Later, he told CNN: "We’ve got all the journalists into these four cars plus a civilian car and we are now driving through the deserted streets of Tripoli to our freedom essentially." He said the Red Cross helped the journalists get through checkpoints.

“We’ve been living in fear for the past five days because we’ve been being held against our will by these crazy gunmen,” he said, according to CNN.

BBC journalists also confirmed they have been freed.

Matthew Price of BBC News said of the Gadhafi-loyal guards at the Rixos: "It was firmly their belief that if we went outside of the hotel, the rebels would capture us, kill us and rape the women."

Chance said the journalists' captivity ended when the guards were told about the changing situation in Tripoli and realized the regime might be over. A guard told the journalists, “Look, we’re not going to stop you from leaving anymore,” Chance reported.

The journalists then were able to arrange their transportation from the hotel, Chance said, according to CNN.

Journalists clad in helmets
An Associated Press reporter who entered the hotel earlier Wednesday found the journalists wearing helmets and flak jackets, clustered on the second floor, where a guard said they weren't permitted to leave.

Other journalists showed up at the gate, including a group in a car decorated with a rebel flag, and were forced out of the car and into the hotel, where they joined the dozens who had been there for days.

Those who had been held captive inside the hotel described running battles in the area, and intermittent electricity.

They were sleeping huddled on the floor in one wing of the hotel to protect each other for fear of people being attacked in their rooms, their belongings packed in case of need for a sudden departure.

Several said the first days of their captivity featured some of the most frightening moments.

""We were in the dining room making a big pot of tea when a sniper put two rounds through the window," said Fox News videojournalist Paul Roubicek.

He said that at other times the captives couldn't go outside because snipers were shooting at them and at their satellite equipment on the roof.

CNN journalist Jomana Karadsheh said the captives were held by 15 armed men until Tuesday, when the numbers dwindled to two. Some of the journalists' captors held impromptu press conferences describing their plans for a massive final battle around the Rixos, she said.

"Once I got into the car I couldn't stop crying," she said.

Save for the two guards, all the hotel employees had fled and the journalists were cooking for themselves. One guard expressed surprise when told most of the city was in rebel hands. Parked in front of the hotel was the bus once used by government minders to ferry journalists around the city — on its windshield was a huge poster of Gadhafi — one of the only ones apparently left in the city.

Italian journalists kidnapped
Four Italian journalists were kidnapped and their driver killed, apparently by Libyan regime loyalists, as they traveled down a highway to Tripoli Wednesday, the Italian foreign ministry said.

The newspaper journalists included two from Milan daily Corriere della Sera, one from Turin's La Stampa and one from Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Catholic bishops Conference, the ministry said.

It said the abductions occurred on a stretch of highway between Zawiya, a town 30 miles west of Tripoli, and the Libyan capital.

Avvenire's bureau in Rome said its reporter, Claudio Monici, called the paper's central newsroom in Milan to say all four journalists were OK and that they had been taken to a house but that it wasn't clear exactly where. Monici had arrived in Libya Tuesday.

"Monici said 'We're OK. Call our families. Call the foreign ministry. Call our papers," Avvenire's foreign news editor, Fabio Carminati, told Sky TG24 TV. Carminati adding that Monici's voice sounded strong.

Monici told his desk "'We were roughed up, they stole our possessions, our money, our phones,'" Carminati said, summing up the call of a few minutes. The editor said that Monici was allowed to use a phone by members of a family of the house they were taken to.

The four are being held in an apartment in Tripoli, said Guido de Sanctis, the Italian consul in Benghazi, who was able to speak to one of the journalists by phone.

"They are fine, even if everything happened in a very difficult atmosphere," de Sanctis told Reuters.

"They have been allowed to call Italy and they have been allowed to get calls from us. They were given food to eat when the Ramadan fast was broken."

Italy's journalist association identified the other abducted journalists as Elisabetta Rosaspina and Giuseppe Saracina of Corriere della Sera and Domenico Quirico of La Stampa.

Journalists wounded
Information also emerged on Wednesday that two French journalists were wounded in the fighting around Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli.

France 2 television said its French cameraman, Bruno Girodon, was shot on Wednesday. He was not in grave danger and will be repatriated, France 2 said on its website.

Paris Match Magazine confirmed on its website that French photographer Alvaro Canovas was shot in the thigh on Tuesday. It said Canovas was in stable condition and returning to France.