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2 journalists tell of abduction

October 11, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — Two American journalists who disappeared last week during a trip across the Middle East said they were abducted by a taxi driver and taken illegally across the Lebanese border into Syria, where they were detained by authorities, locked up and interrogated for a week, according to a report published Friday.

Taylor Luck and Holli Chmela, two U.S. citizens who write for the English-language Jordan Times, were released from Syrian custody Thursday night and handed over to American officials. They then headed home to Amman, the Jordanian capital.

In the front-page account of their ordeal published Friday by their newspaper, Chmela, 27, and Luck, 23, denied Syrian accusations that they paid a smuggler to get them across the border.

They said they had intended to cross the Syrian border legally, but were duped by a taxi driver and an accomplice into using an illegal road to cross the frontier, which has been a subject of international concern that it is being used to smuggle weapons and Islamic militants.

The disappearance, announced Wednesday, sparked concern about a possible return to the kidnapping of Westerners, a widespread practice during Lebanon's civil war. Though questions remain about the events, people in Lebanon were relieved that the two were not victims of the kind of politically motivated abductions that spurred Westerners to flee the country during the 1970s and '80s.

"The suspicions that some security officials had that the two might have been taken to a Palestinian camp or attacked by fundamentalists because of their nationality was proven wrong," said an article in the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar.

Syrian officials told another Lebanese newspaper that the two paid at least $120 to get across the border. The daily As Safir reported that the pair confessed to hiring a smuggler. But the two told the Jordan Times that they were tricked into crossing the border Oct. 1 by a driver who said he was authorized to make such trips. They had a feeling that things were going wrong when the driver "went off the main road," Luck told his newspaper.

"I asked him where the border was but he did not answer," Luck said.

The two said the driver locked the doors and demanded money. Suddenly a military vehicle showed up. Soldiers seized their bags, passports and cellphones before hauling them away.

They said they were held in a jail near the Syrian city of Homs, not far from the border with northern Lebanon. They didn't reveal that they were journalists, they said.

Luck told his paper that he was locked up in a cell with 30 people, and mostly kept away from Chmela, except for brief periods late at night when they were allowed to meet.

"Most treated us well," Luck told his newspaper.

Interrogators accused them of trying to cause mischief, they said. According to a report by the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the two journalists' stories did not match, raising suspicions they might be involved in espionage.

About a week into their detention, after their parents and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had issued a public call for information, an officer recognized them from photographs on television.

"He asked us, 'Are you Americans? Are you journalists? Are you the two journalists?' " Luck said.

Jail authorities contacted their superiors. Thursday evening, the two were taken to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital. They arrived in Amman shortly afterward.

"We may have exercised poor judgment, but at the end of the day, we were victims," Luck said.


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