BOSTON — Libyan authorities today released four foreign journalists who had been held for more than six weeks to a hotel in Tripoli.
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi first captured GlobalPost correspondent James Foley, Clare Morgana Gillis, who has written for The Atlantic and USA Today, and Manuel Varela, a Spanish photographer who works under the name Manu Brabo, on April 5.
The fourth reporter appears to be Nigel Chandler, a British freelance journalist. It is unclear when, and under what circumstances, authorities first detained him.
Speaking to GlobalPost by phone from the Rixos Hotel, Foley said he was relieved and grateful for all the help that had been given to him and the other journalists during their more than six weeks of detention.
"I am overwhelmed to hear about all the support," he said.
In a phone call to his mother in New Hampshire, Foley said that he was glad to be finally out and "just wanted to get home."
“We were overjoyed to get a telephone call from Jim shortly after his release today in Tripoli. He told me he was well and looking forward to coming home,” said his mother, Diane Foley. “We are extraordinarily grateful to the many people who have worked on his release and we hope to have him home as soon as possible.”
Foley, Gillis and Brabo have languished in a series of detention centers in Tripoli for more than six weeks, during which time the Libyan government allowed them little to no communication with the outside. News that their release was imminent first came after a foreign diplomat, one of the few still left in Tripoli, was allowed to visit the jailed journalists about two weeks ago.
Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Libyan government, told the Associated Press earlier this week that the four journalists were detained because they had entered the country illegally, presumably for not having valid visas. Their final court appearance, he said, took place on Tuesday.
Ibrahim also told the Associated Press on Monday that their release had been delayed because a NATO air strike had damaged buildings belonging to the Justice Ministry in the capital.
All four journalists will likely be escorted to the Tunisian border on Thursday.
“This is a tremendously happy day for the entire staff of GlobalPost. For 43 days James and the other journalists have been in our thoughts virtually every minute,” said GlobalPost President and CEO Philip S. Balboni. “We are proud of Jim, Clare and Manu for their courage and we are thrilled for their families who have had to endure incredible anxiety. We expect that all of the journalists will be across the Libyan border and in Tunisia tomorrow and very soon thereafter Jim and Clare will be headed home to the United States. I want to express my gratitude to the many people in America and around the world who either assisted in their release or expressed their support and concern.”
Foley, Gillis and Brabo were all captured together on April 5 while they were reporting on the outskirts of Brega, the eastern oil town that has seen some of the worst fighting since the conflict began. Foley had been reporting on the Libyan rebel army for GlobalPost since mid-March.
A fourth journalist, South African Anton Hammerl, is still missing. Hammerl was originally thought to have been captured alongside Foley, Gillis and Brabo. But Libyan authorities have denied that they are holding him and his whereabouts remain unknown.
Foley was allowed one phone call during his detention and Gillis two. Both reporters, who are both American, told their families at the time that they were in good condition and being treated well. After a visit with the reporters, the foreign diplomat confirmed that they were all in good condition, in the same safe house, and were being treated well.
Libyan authorities had originally given the impression that the reporters would be held for only a matter of days. But as the days stretched into weeks, and the conflict in Libya grew more chaotic, so too had concerns for their well-being.
Their situation was complicated when the Turkish government, which had been one of the only channels of communication with the Libyans, closed its embassy in Tripoli earlier this month and called for Gaddafi to step down. It was Turkish diplomats in Tripoli who managed to secure the release of four New York Times journalists detained in March.
As their detention dragged on, a movement calling for their release, led by friends and family, grew in numbers. More than 30,000 people have signed a petition appealing to the Libyan authorities to release them.
Supporters have also been holding regular vigils and rallies to draw attention to their detention, most recently one in New York City on Sunday that was attended by both David Rhode, a New York Times journalist who was held captive by the Taliban in 2009 for seven months, and Tyler Hicks, who was one of the New York Times journalists captured by Gaddafi forces in March.
Officials at the United Nations added their voices to the cause as well, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who last month urged the Libyan government to release all of the detained journalists.
International organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press and others also campaigned for their release.
“The first instinct of tyrants is to shut down a free press, squelching opposition and oversight,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee. “Throwing reporters and photographers in jail because of — or to prevent them from completing — their work is an unacceptable, dangerous and ultimately ineffective means of stifling dissent."
GlobalPost has worked daily, pursuing all the necessary and appropriate channels, to secure the safe release of Foley, Gillis and Brabo. GlobalPost remains in close touch with The Atlantic, USA Today, the State Department and diplomats still working inside Libya.
Covering the Libyan conflict has proved dangerous for journalists.
A number of Libyan journalists are missing and several foreign journalists remain in custody, Human Rights Watch said. Several journalists have also been killed while covering the fighting, including British photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington and American photographer Chris Hondros. The two were killed in April during clashes between rebels and government forces in the Libyan city of Misurata.