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Canadian Amanda Lindhout freed in Somalia

26 November 2009 at 01:05 | 530 views

Canadian reporter Amanda Lindhout has been freed, 15 months after she was snatched by gunmen in Somalia and held for ransom under "extremely oppressive" conditions that included torture and beatings.

CBC News confirmed Wednesday that the 28-year-old Alberta journalist and Australian photographer Nigel Brennan had been released and were safe in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. A ransom was reportedly paid to secure their release.

Speaking from a hotel room hours after being freed, she told CTV she had "pretty dark moments" in the custody of her kidnappers, who she said were criminals posing as freedom fighters. After she was seized in August 2008, she said she was kept alone in rooms with no light and little food in houses throughout Somalia.

"My day was sitting on a corner on the floor in a room 24 hours a day for the last 15 months," she said.

"There were times that I was beaten, that I was tortured. It was an extremely, extremely difficult situation."

Her colleague told Reuters he was pistol-whipped and locked in chains during the ordeal. Brennan said the treatment worsened after he and Lindhout tried to escape 10 months ago.

"I’m just happy that I’m alive, happy I’m alive and looking forward to seeing my family and trying to pick up the threads of my life," he said.

Sustained by thoughts of ’sunny’ places
Lindhout will fly to Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday, where she will join her family. Lindhout said she is eager to go home and re-evaluate her life, after thoughts of Canada kept her going while she was in captivity.

"I think human beings have an enormous capacity to adjust to trying circumstances and it was the idea of coming home, of a reunion with my family, that kept me going in that darkness," she said.

"I would just try to escape in my mind to a sunny place, usually Vancouver, in my mind. I’d imagine running around in Stanley Park."

’It was the idea of coming home, of a reunion with my family, that kept me going in that darkness

A freelance television and print reporter from Sylvan Lake, Alta., Lindhout was usually based in Baghdad. She wrote for the Red Deer Advocate newspaper, reporting from war zones in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On Aug. 20, 2008, Lindhout arrived in Mogadishu to work for French TV channel France 24.

Reporting on refugees

Lindhout and Brennan had been reporting on refugees escaping factional fighting in the Mogadishu area when they were ambushed by roadside kidnappers on Aug. 23.

Lindhout said she was moved often during her kidnapping, held in about 11 different houses in different parts of the country. She said her kidnappers wanted $1 million from her family, something her family could not afford to pay.

Every few months, Lindhout said, the kidnappers would direct her to make a scripted call to her mother in an attempt to convince her to pay. Lindhout said the kidnappers believed everyone in Canada is rich enough to afford the ransom they wanted, and they would beat her to try to get her to say the right thing to her mother to make her pay.

"My mother wasn’t allowed to ask any questions, and I also wasn’t allowed to say what I wanted to say," she said. "[The kidnappers] would come to me beforehand with a pen and paper and sort of guide me and tell me what I needed to say to her."

When the kidnappers failed to get the family to pay what they wanted, they turned to media outlets, having Lindhout call CTV and others to plead her case and inspire the Canadian government to pay.

Ultimately, Lindhout said her family did pay some money to secure her freedom, although she is not sure of the details. AFP, quoting an unnamed kidnapper, says the amount paid was $1 million. Another unnamed police officer told the Associated Press that $700,000 was paid.

Brennan said their freedom came suddenly.

"We were ripped out of our rooms, stripped of everything, told to put on new clothes and then thrown in a car and then driven — we had no idea what was going on," he said.

Lindhout does not believe the kidnappers will ever be caught. She added that she never felt sympathy for them.

Lindhout’s friends, colleagues and former employers helped her family raise money to secure her release, holding fundraisers on her behalf. The Canadian Association of Journalists wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on her behalf in August, urging him to take on her case.

Paul Vickers, who owns several Calgary bars including Ceili’s Irish Pub where Lindhout used to work, helped with the fundraising effort. He said he was ecstatic to hear she is free.

"We get this news today that she’s been released, it’s just oh my goodness, I’m so happy for her and her whole family," he told CBC News. "It’s wow, it’s incredible."

She and her colleague were abducted along with a Somali journalist and translator named Abdifatah Elmi, who was serving as a fixer for Lindhout and Brennan. Two drivers were also abducted. The fixer and the drivers were released in January.

About a month after the abduction, Arab television network Al-Jazeera aired video footage that showed Lindhout and Brennan in the company of men with guns.

In October 2008, Tehran-based Press TV reported that Somali kidnappers had threatened to kill Lindhout and Brennan if a $2.5-million ransom were not paid by the end of that month.

On the first anniversary of the abduction of Lindhout and Brennan, their parents issued a statement saying they were "united as one" and "continue to work tirelessly … throughout this horrendous ordeal" to free the pair, "with little outside support."

Photo: Canadian freelance journalist Amanda Lindhout, seen reporting in Iraq, was kidnapped in August 2008 in Somalia.