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Missing journalists safe in Jordan

'We thought we were going to be killed at any moment'

Molly Bingham in a file photo
Molly Bingham in a file photo

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Three American journalists, a Danish photographer and a peace activist arrived in Jordan after a week in an Iraqi prison (April 2)
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Three American journalists, a Danish photographer and a peace activist were released from Iraqi custody Tuesday morning after a week's confinement and arrived safely in Jordan later in the day.

They all disappeared March 25 -- last Tuesday -- from the Palestine Hotel, which is housing many of the visiting journalists covering the war from Baghdad.

Among the Americans was Molly Bingham, a member of one of America's most famous newspaper families. The other two worked for the Long Island newspaper Newsday.

"We thought it was an April Fool's joke," Barry Bingham Jr., father of the award-winning photojournalist, told reporters in Louisville, Kentucky.

He referred to the call he received from his daughter at 1:15 p.m. With his wife, Mary, and Molly's sister, Emily, at his side, Bingham said, "Molly said she was OK and said she'd had a rough week. My family and I are overjoyed."

Bingham, 34, was the official photographer for Al Gore when he was vice president. "We are thrilled our prayers have been answered and that Molly and her companions are safe," Gore said in a statement.

Bingham now works for the agency World Picture News and was on assignment for Esquire magazine.

The Newsday journalists, reporter Matthew McAllester, 33, and photographer Moises Saman, 29, said they were seized by Iraqi authorities at their hotel in Baghdad last Tuesday morning, handcuffed and taken to a prison where they were interrogated and held until Monday under harsh conditions.

The others freed Tuesday were Danish photographer Johan Rydeng Spanner and peace activist Philip Latasha.

Dele Olojede, Newsday's foreign editor, said when McAllester first called in, "a great cry arose and it was bedlam in the newsroom after that."

"His voice was clear and happy and steady, the same old Matt," Olojede said.

McAllester said they were questioned by Iraqi intelligence officials who suspected they may have been American spies, something they adamantly denied, but they were not physically mistreated or abused.

"We thought we were going to be killed at any moment," he told his newspaper, saying they could hear and feel the relentless coalition bombing of Iraq's capital, as well as the firing from a nearby anti-aircraft battery.

Held in prison cells

Newsday editors and its publisher told a news conference in New York the five had been held in single cells in a prison called Abu Ghraid, where they were interrogated for three days.

Tuesday at 11 a.m. (3 a.m. EST), they were given their regular clothes and taken in a Chevrolet Suburban to the Jordanian border, where they were allowed to call home.

"We were in Abu Ghraid prison for seven or eight days; there were no specific charges. It wasn't much fun, but we were not physically hurt, and we were very happy to be out," McAllester told reporters while sitting in the SUV at the border.

"But the single most important thing is that we understand that there were many people who were trying their very hardest to get us out. And I think I speak for everyone -- we're all incredibly grateful, and we're really quite happy to talk later, but we're a bit tired."

The Newsday journalists said they were calling from Ruwasheid, Jordan, just across the Iraqi border. Bingham also called from Jordan near the border and told her father she was heading to Amman, the capital, and would call her family once she arrived.

Iraqi ambassador helped with release

Newsday photographer Moises Saman and Newsday U.N. Bureau Chief Matt McAllester, from left
Newsday photographer Moises Saman and Newsday U.N. Bureau Chief Matt McAllester, from left

A member of the family that owned the Louisville Courier-Journal for 70 years as well as a number of broadcast stations, Molly Bingham has covered the news in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, where she won an award for her work.

The paper won three Pulitzer prizes during Barry Bingham Jr.'s 15-year tenure as editor and publisher before his father, Barry Bingham Sr., its chairman, sold the paper to the Gannett Newspaper Group in 1986. Barry Jr. quit his posts in protest of the sale.

It was Molly Bingham's great-grandfather, Robert Worth Bingham, who bought the paper in 1918. He later became U.S. ambassador to Britain.

Family spokesman Stan McDonald said the family appreciates the help it received from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Red Cross and the news media.

Newsday said the group also had help from the Vatican and an unexpected source -- Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, who expressed his concern about the situation and his desire to help the Newsday staff members.

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