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Freed journalists arrive at Burbank airport

August 5, 2009 |  8:14 am

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Former President Clinton and the two California journalists whose freedom from a North Korean prison he helped secure arrived early this morning at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where they were greeted by dozens of family and friends.

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Their private plane landed about 6 a.m. and immediately taxied to a heavily secured hangar to meet the waiting crowd, which included former Vice President Al Gore and reporters and photographers.

Journalists Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, were greeted by kisses and hugs from sobbing family members, who had not seen them in four months. An emotional Laura Ling expressed her thanks for all those who helped in gaining their freedom.

"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea," Ling said. "It is what sustained us in our darkest hours. We are very grateful we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea."

More photos As they walked off the plane, Ling pumped both fists in the air. She was embraced by her sister, mother and husband, followed by other family members. Gore arrived with both families. After several moments of hugs among relatives amid the constant clicks of cameras, Clinton emerged from the airplane to applause.

After a few minutes, Ling walked to the microphone with the rest of the group behind her, holding a folded piece of paper from which she read: "Thirty hours ago Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp.

"And then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting; we were taken to a location and when we walked through the door we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end. And now we stand here home and free."

After Ling spoke, Gore walked to the microphone and welcomed the pair home. During the 140 days the two women were imprisoned in North Korea, Current TV officials refused to talk about them.

Gore thanked everyone involved in getting the pair released and said President Obama and his staff "have been deeply involved in this humanitarian effort.... They have really put their hearts in this."

"This has been an ordeal for them but I want you all to know your families have been unbelievable, unbelievable, passionate, involved, committed, innovative," he said, turning toward the group of family members in casual wear and diplomats in dark suits.

PhotosDuring most of the news conference, Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Hana, stayed in her mother's arms, her hand resting on Lee's back or clutched behind Lee's neck.

"But Euna, Hana's been a great girl while you were gone, and Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now," Gore said.

Security was tight at the early morning event, with police officers and U.S. Secret Service agents scattered throughout the hangar.

Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, were arrested March 17 near the North Korean border with China while reporting on fleeing refugees. They were on assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV, a cable and satellite channel co-founded by Gore.

In June, the women were convicted and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country and “hostile acts.” On Tuesday, Clinton, the husband of Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, arrived in North Korea to negotiate their release.

-- Raja Abdulrahim

Photo: (Top) Former Vice President Al Gore hugs journalist Laura Ling at the Burbank airport after she, Euna Lee (third from right) and former President Clinton returned from North Korea. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times (Middle and Bottom) Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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