Iraq Frees Captured CBS News Crew; Network Credits Soviet Intervention
Looking haggard but unhurt, four CBS television journalists were freed Saturday after 41 days in Iraqi captivity in “a humanitarian gesture” that the four said indicated that an early release of all other allied prisoners of war in Iraq may be forthcoming.
Members of the CBS crew, which included the network’s Middle East correspondent, Bob Simon, London Bureau Chief Peter Bluff and the free-lance camera team of Roberto Alvarez and Juan Caldera, were “interrogated closely” throughout their ordeal, according to CBS Vice President Don DeCesare, who accompanied the four men to Baghdad’s Rashid Hotel for a brief rest.
“They endured the lives of prisoners,” DeCesare said, declining to provide details of their treatment after their capture at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border nearly six weeks ago.
“I thank God that the four of us are alive,” Simon said in an emotional CBS broadcast by portable satellite from Baghdad soon after the release. “We lost a little weight. We aged a little. But we’re fine.”
Commenting on their release, the network publicly thanked Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who personally intervened with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to secure the crew’s release.
In Moscow, Gorbachev spokesman Sergei A. Grigoryev said Saturday that the Soviet leader had been working to persuade Hussein to free the CBS crew since soon after they were captured. Gorbachev talked twice personally to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz, asking that the television crew be freed, Grigoryev said.
Gorbachev’s special envoy, Yevgeny M. Primakov, was told to seek their release during his recent trip to Baghdad, the spokesman added.
On Thursday, Gorbachev received a letter from former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger asking him to continue to pursue the release of the CBS crew, the spokesman said. Later that day, Gorbachev sent a message through diplomatic channels to Hussein asking him specifically to release the CBS crew, Grigoryev said.
Iraq informed the Soviet Embassy in Baghdad early Saturday that the crew had been freed and that message was relayed to Gorbachev’s office, Grigoryev said.
“Gorbachev’s role in freeing the crew was great and constructive,” Grigoryev said.
After their release, the four men left Baghdad by road to Amman, Jordan, arriving just after sunset. A CBS-TV charter flight was taking them on to Europe, where they will receive medical checkups and rest.
Sources at CBS said the network wanted the crew to leave the region safely before discussing the specifics of their incarceration.
Western journalists, who were permitted by the Iraqi Information Ministry to briefly interview the crew members in Baghdad, said the men seemed fit but were clearly worn by their ordeal.
Simon, a veteran correspondent and winner of two Emmy Awards for his news coverage, said he believes their release bodes well for other allied prisoners in Iraq, among them captured pilots from the United States, Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Italy.
Indicating that he had seen at least some of the other prisoners during his weeks of captivity, Simon told reporters in Baghdad: “I want to express the hope, the fervent hope, and my prayers that people we met along the way--Americans, British, Kuwaitis, primarily--will be following in my footsteps within hours, if not days.”
The four men were picked up by a front-line Iraqi patrol Jan. 21 near a remote desert outpost at the intersection of the borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They were attempting to show U.S. viewers the precise location where the land battle, then looming over the Persian Gulf War, would eventually take place.
But the crew had ventured beyond the allies’ front lines into no-man’s-land on a trip not authorized by allied military authorities, who had imposed strict guidelines that hampered many journalists attempting to cover the war from Saudi Arabia.
The crew was missing for five days when a Saudi army patrol found their abandoned van, out of gas, just a few dozen yards from the Iraqi border. It contained several thousand dollars in cash, one of the crew member’s passports and several videocassettes that the crew had filmed along the way.
Journalists in Saudi Arabia at the time feared for the worst, and the crew’s families rode a roller coaster of rumors and speculation for weeks, while Iraqi authorities continually denied any knowledge of the missing crew.
During a press conference in Amman last month, Sadoun Hammadi, a top official of Hussein’s ruling Revolutionary Command Council, told reporters that, to his knowledge, “they are not in Iraq.”
On Saturday, Iraq’s Information Minister Latif Jasim said only that the four had entered Iraq “illegally” and were freed in response to the diplomatic appeals from the Soviet Union.
In addition to CBS’ many pleas to Baghdad through diplomatic and other channels, the network’s veteran producer in Amman, Larry Doyle, organized an international petition drive, securing the signatures of more than 4,000 professional journalists who attested to the fact that the four men were journalists and not spies.
Simon credited the petitions for helping secure their release, telling the journalists who gathered around them in Baghdad on Saturday: “We know something about how helpful our friends in the press corps have been. We were not surprised by it, but we were very, very deeply moved by it.
“I am sure we, at least in part, owe our lives to it. And all we can do is express our deepest gratitude to our very dear friends and to God.”
Times staff writer Elizabeth Shogren, in Moscow, contributed to this story.
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