Africa

BBC team's ordeal at hands of Gaddafi troops

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Media captionGoktay Koraltan and Feras Kilani said other detainees had been badly beaten

Three members of a BBC team trying to reach the besieged town of Zawiya were detained and mistreated for 21 hours by the Libyan military. They were beaten and subjected to mock executions, the BBC's Wyre Davies in Tripoli reports.

When Chris Cobb-Smith, Feras Killani and Goktay Koraltan were stopped they had been on a journey taken by dozens of international journalists in Gaddafi's Libya.

Officially we are allowed to travel around the country freely and to see what we want.

The Libyan Information Ministry has even written to the United Nations to that effect, promising that free passage would be guaranteed to all reporters wishing to cover the crisis.

The reality is very different. Reporters are routinely stopped from going out beyond the confines of central Tripoli. The official government "media trips" are of limited use from a newsgathering perspective and those on such trips often come across ''spontaneous" demonstrations by fanatical pro-Gaddafi loyalists.

There were two BBC teams on Monday trying to get to Zawiya - a provincial town only 30 miles (48km) west of Tripoli but under rebel control.

The official government line was that its troops were taking up defensive positions, there had been minimal loss of life and no heavy fighting.

Terrible conditions

We knew the truth was different - some enterprising journalists had already managed to get in, past the many roadblocks, and reported the terrible conditions inside Zawiya - and we wanted to see for ourselves.

My small team was in a car a couple of kilometres behind Chris, Feras and Goktay.

They, initially, seemed to be having more luck than us. We had been stopped by a polite but insistent army officer who detained us at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Tripoli for the best part of four hours before sending us back to our hotel, frustrated but otherwise unharmed.

All along we had been in touch by phone with the other team, who had managed to progress a couple of kilometres further than us on the road to Zawiya. But they too had by now been pulled over to the side of the road and rang us to say they weren't being allowed to go any further.

Apart from a couple of snatched, frantic calls it was the last we would hear from them for 21 hours.

Towards the end of the week, we are all sitting in a hotel room in Tripoli, relieved but well aware of how badly it could have all ended.

This is a comparatively small BBC operation in the Libyan capital, covering a huge international story. Other BBC teams in the east and west of the country are running the gauntlet and taking extraordinary risks to cover the other side. But for a whole day earlier this week the latest developments in Colonel Gaddafi's attempts to hang on to power seemed to be the last things on our minds.

The guys have all been to hell and back.

Feras is a tough and experienced reporter for the BBC Arabic service, of Palestinian descent with a Syrian passport. He seemed to be singled out for the worst of the violence - more than one of his abusers told him they didn't like his coverage of the Libyan popular uprising.

"They accused me of being a spy - of working for British Intelligence," Feras later told us with incredulity.

"They wanted to know why I was carrying dollars and pounds."

Goktay was - by his own admission - the one most convinced during their interrogation and abuse that they were going to be killed.

Image caption Military checkpoints are stopping all traffic from entering the town of Zawiya

'Going to die'

The cameraman simply couldn't see a way out of it, not after the way the soldiers had beaten Feras with their fists, knees and rifles.

"Above the loud music I could hear Feras in agony. We could hear screams. Our taxi driver who was with us was praying, terrified and saying that we were going to die. Another of my colleagues managed to get a call out to the BBC saying we were in trouble."

That colleague who had managed to conceal his phone was Chris, a tall but quietly spoken man who has travelled the world and seen a lot in his time with the BBC, as have all of this hugely experienced team.

But even he, on occasion, during his ordeal at the hands of the Libyan army and secret police, thought that perhaps his time had come.

They had all already gone through a mock "execution" - hooded and thrown to the floor off the back of a jeep while armed men repeatedly cocked their guns just feet away. Hours later, when it happened again, Chris feared the worst.

"We were lined up against the wall. I was the last in line - facing the wall. I looked and I saw a plain-clothes guy with a small sub-machine gun. He put it to everyone's neck. I saw him and he screamed at me," said Chris as he went over things with us later.

"Then he walked up to me, put the gun to my neck and pulled the trigger, twice. The bullets whisked past my ear. The soldiers just laughed. Now it just feels like a bad dream."

A bad dream, perhaps. But now, well away from Libya, it will take the guys some time to get over their experiences at the hands of the Libyan military.

Above all, they worry about the screams and cries of their fellow detainees - Libyans, many from the town of Zawiya itself.

Chris, Goktay and Feras are in no doubt that many young Libyan men were being subjected to far worse and more prolonged maltreatment than they had to suffer.

What has become of them? They have no organisation like the BBC to lobby for their release, or the luxury of British passports to afford them some protection. As Goktay told me before he boarded his plane out of Tripoli: "They are probably dead."

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