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Reporters' release tempered by news of colleague's death

American reporters Foley and Gillis said South African Anton Hammerl was shot by Gaddafi forces on April 5.

James foley clare gillis 2011 5 19Enlarge
American reporters James Foley and Clare Gillis cross into Tunisia after six weeks of detention in Libya. (Jon Jensen/GlobalPost)

DJERBA, Tunisia — American journalists James Foley and Clare Gillis were relieved and in good health when they crossed the border into Tunisia Thursday, six weeks after they were first detained by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But celebrations were tempered by the absence of their colleague Anton Hammerl, the South African journalist they had been traveling with in the days before their capture.

Foley and Gillis told GlobalPost in an interview Thursday night at their hotel in Tunisia that Hammerl had been shot by Gaddafi forces while the group reported on the outskirts of Brega.

Foley, Gillis and Hammerl, as well as Spanish photographer Manu Brabo, arrived at the rebel-held front lines early in the morning on April 5, Foley and Gillis said. They said they were planning on spending the night in a rebel camp just east of Brega along the coastal highway.

When they first arrived at the front lines, the journalists heard reports that pro-Gaddafi forces were dug in nearby. The reporters decided to exit the car before the rebel soldiers they were traveling alongside pushed ahead.

But within seconds, the rebels whipped around in full retreat. In front of them — barreling towards Foley and the other journalists — were two armored Libyan military trucks carrying 10 pro-Gaddafi troops. They were all firing AK-47s over their heads.

"It all happened in a split second. We thought we were in the crossfire. But, eventually, we realized they were shooting at us. You could see and hear the bullets hitting the ground near us," Foley said.

All four journalists immediately dropped to the ground, diving to the side of the road. But the Libyan soldiers, who were coming over the hill, continued to fire, Foley said. Hammerl, who was closest to the fighting, cried out for help. Foley called out, "Are you OK?"

"No," was Hammerl's only reply. After the third barrage of fire, Hammerl's cries ended.

"I thought instinctively that we were all going to get killed, so I jumped up to surrender and screamed that we were journalists," Foley said.

As he jumped up, he was punched in the face and dealt several blows with the butt-end of an AK-47 in the jaw and head. Brabo and Gillis were also punched.

The three were then handcuffed with electrical cords and tossed into the cab of a nearby pickup truck.

Just before they were captured, however, Foley saw Hammerl's limp body lying in the sand. He said Hammerl was shot in the abdomen and was bleeding severely.

While in captivity, Foley said the three journalists wrestled with how to communicate the news of Hammerl's death to his family.

"We knew collectively that if we spoke about Hammerl's death while we were detained, then we would be in greater danger ourselves. But now that we're free, it's our moral imperative to tell the story of this great journalist and father," he said.

Foley and Gillis informed Hammerl's wife, Penny, of the news by telephone after they had safely crossed the border into Tunisia. Hammerl's family released a statement shortly after.

"Words are simply not enough to describe the unbelievable trauma the Hammerl family is going through," the statement read. "From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton. It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up."

Foley, a reporter for GlobalPost, and Gillis, who has written for The Atlantic and USA Today, arrived in Tunisia Thursday evening after being escorted to the border by Hungarian diplomats. Brabo crossed the border with Spanish officials earlier in the day.

A fourth reporter, British national Nigel Chandler, was also released at the same time. He was captured in Bin Jawaad at the beginning of March.

"It's an amazing feeling of freedom to be in Tunisia. Just to be able to walk to a car and know that we're not going to another detention center or trial is a relief," Foley said earlier on Thursday, just after he first crossed the border.

"Talking with my dad was a visceral sense of joy. I'm humbled by the tremendous support of my friends and family. Last night was the first time I've been on the internet in 44