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Freed New York Times journalists thought they would die in Libya

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Journalists recount being taken in Libya
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The journalists say they though they would be killed
  • All four captives were subject to physical and mental abuse
  • The lone woman in the group says she was subjected to sexual abuse
  • They believe they were spared because of the potential repercussions of killing Americans

(CNN) -- Held by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, four New York Times journalists felt death was certain.

The feeling was never stronger than when the soldiers hovered over Lynsey Addario, Stephen Farrell, Tyler Hicks, and Anthony Shadid with automatic weapons as they lay on the ground.

"I think we all had that -- that very sinking feeling that this was it," Shadid said on CNN's "AC360 Thursday. "And I remember on my stomach looking up and I remember him being a tall soldier and him saying, 'Shoot them.'"

The four journalists were released this month after being held for about a week.

Addario recalled that physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her captors started almost immediately.

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"I remember I was sitting in the car and I'm bound, and they had bound my hands so tight they were starting to go numb," Addario told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "And I was sitting there, sort of blowing the wisps of hair out of my face, and this guy came up next to me. And my instinct was that, 'Oh, he's going to help me,' and he just punched me in the side of the face."

"Then I started crying because I thought, 'It's only going to get worse," she said. "We're in the first 15 minutes. This could last months, you know?'"

Addario said the man who punched her in the face laughed afterward, and, as the only woman, she also had to deal with sexual assault.

"They came and groped me ... I've never been touched like that in the Muslim world, and I've been working 11 years in the Muslim world," she said. "That's when I said, "Oh, God, I just don't want to be raped."

The four colleagues initially thought they were safe as they began "pulling back slowly" from Ajdabiya, a northeastern Libyan city as Gadhafi's troops advanced, Hicks said. They had escaped a firefight between the opposing sides.

But their retreat from the area was going too slowly, Shadid recalled.

"It must have been seconds, but it felt like minutes," he said. "We saw the green military uniforms, the military vehicles. And then almost -- I mean almost instantly -- you realized that you were actually at a government checkpoint and that we had ... pretty much no options at that point."

Fleeing was not an option, Addario said.

"You can't turn around and go back because they'll open fire. I mean, you would assume they would open fire," she said. "You look more suspicious if you try and run away."

Addario said their driver moved on to Plan B, telling the soldiers the people in the car were journalists.

But Gadhafi's troops were not swayed by that argument.

"Journalists? That wasn't working," Farrell remembered.

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"We were put on our knees first and there was a lot of ... slapping," Shadid said. "There was emptying our pockets. And I remember one of the soldiers was yelling at me, 'You're the translator. You're the spy.'"

It was soon after then that one of the soldiers threatened to kill them.

But "another soldier said to him, 'You can't. They're Americans.'"

"Americans? That did seem to hit a chord," Farrell said.

Shadid added, "I think the idea of executing three Americans and a British journalist would have had implications ... There was going to be repercussions of basically executing us there at a checkpoint."

While the abusive during captivity wasn't limited to Addario, it often focused on her.

In prison, one man tried to drag her out of her cell, but quit after she put up a fight. In the back of a Land Cruiser, she had to deal with another "twisted" scenario.

"A guy reached over from the front seat and started caressing my hair either like a mother would a son or a daughter," Addario said. "And then he started touching my face, very sort of gently and saying this phrase over and over," she said. "And I sort of tried to put my head down.

"And he picked it up and just kept caressing me in this weird sort of tender way. And he was saying this phrase over and over," she said. "And I said to Anthony, I said what's 'Mort?' And Anthony said, 'He's telling you you're going to die tonight.' I mean, what can you say?"

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 14 journalists have been killed around the world so far in 2011, including two slain by crossfire in Libya and one each in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, some of the other Arab countries that have experienced uprisings this year.

Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance journalist who regularly contributed to CNN, was killed this week in Iraq.

Currently, two Reuters journalists are missing in Syria.

Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.

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