MILAN — Four Italian journalists who were freed Thursday after being taken hostage by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists said they thought they would be killed by their captors.
The ordeal suffered by the journalists – two from Corriere della Sera, one from La Stampa, and one from Avvenire – began when the kidnappers shot and killed their driver and ended when a rival group of loyalists freed them in a raid on the house where they were being held, the reporters said.
Giuseppe Sarcina, a correspondent for Corriere della Sera, told Sky News 24 they were captured by loyalists at gunpoint on Wednesday near Green Square in the Libyan capital.
Sarcina said he believes their liberators were militia, not regular army soldiers or civilians.
"I can't say with precision. There were many people. It is impossible to distinguish them in some moments. They were probably militia, not civilians," he said.
The journalists appeared to be in good health, but remained shaken by the shooting death of their driver after they ran into forces loyal to Gadhafi on a quiet side street en route to a hotel in Tripoli.
"They took the driver and made him get out of the car," Claudio Monici of Avvenire of the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops conference told Sky News. "He understood that that was the end, and they beat him and killed him in front of our eyes. They were angry, with bloodshot eyes."
Monici said the gunmen that took them hostage asked if they were from Italy, then accused them of participating in the NATO bombing campaign aimed at ousting Gadhafi. Monici said some of the journalist were kicked and beaten during the ordeal. Sarcina appeared to have injuries to his face when he appeared on camera.
After the four journalists were forced from the car, "they told us to go into the garage, and they closed us inside. They robbed us, cameras, money, everything," Monici said.
During their 24-hour captivity, the journalists said they were held in the garage, then moved around Tripoli in a car supposedly to a military headquarters to be interrogated. They were later freed by the rival loyalists from a private residence.
Italy's consul in Benghazi, Guido De Sanctis, said no demands had been made by the captors.
"I am alive and well, and free," said Domenico Quirco, who was quoted by his newspaper, La Stampa, shortly after his release. "Now I am fine, but an hour ago I thought I was going to die."
The fourth journalist, Elisabetta Rosaspina of Corriere, called the newspaper's editor-in-chief to announce their liberation. "There were difficult and tumultuous moments, but we are OK," she said.
News of the release came just minutes before Premier Silvio Berlusconi met with Mahmoud Jibril, the head of Libya's rebel Cabinet who is on a European diplomatic tour aimed at securing the release of frozen Libyan assets.
"We consider it a good omen for the future," Berlusconi said of the hostages' release. Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa called it "a great relief."