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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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CNN's Chance out of Rixos 'nightmare,' ready to go home

August 24, 2011 |  4:45 pm

LibyaMatthewChance Just out of Tripoli's Rixos al Nasr Hotel, which had been his prison for five days, CNN's Matthew Chance gave thanks for a turn of fortune that freed him and 35 other journalists, said he was still looking for a good, square meal and looked  forward to flying to London to see his wife and 5-year-old daughter.

A 15-year career as a foreign correspondent has taken the Briton to trouble zones from the Balkans, to Chechnya, to Iraq and Afghanistan. "Of all the terrible places I find myself in, this was by far, by far, the most terrifying of them all," said Chance at the end of five days of captivity at the hotel, which for months has been the Libyan government's headquarters for visiting journalists.

In an interview with the Big Picture, the 41-year-old Chance described the captive journalists grouping together for safety, plotting repeatedly how they might escape and making a nighttime raid on the hotel kitchen to bolster their shrinking provisions. Among the others at the hotel were news crews from the BBC, Sky News and Reuters. 

On Wednesday, CNN viewers could see Chance smiling broadly on camera from Tripoli, holding a flower handed to him by residents of the city, apparently liberated after more than four decades under the  dictatorship of Moammar Kadafi. He elaborated on his televised comments in a phone interview late Wednesday, Libyan time.

Chance said the situation at the hotel--which was profiled Wednesday by L.A. Times correspondent Patrick McDonnell--deteriorated over the weekend when official government minders disappeared, along with many of the loyalist troops guarding the hotel.

Five or six agitated guards with assault rifles remained behind, waving flags, shouting warnings and refusing to let the reporters and camera crews go.

"We couldn’t understand why we were being held against our will in this hotel," Chance said. "We were put in a hostage situation. We didn't call it that [on the air] because we didn’t want to escalate the situation. But that's what we were, hostages. We just didn't see what the point was or how it would end."

When the five-star hotel lost power, it became "hot, dark, sweaty and miserable," Chance said. Stray bullets would occasionally smack the side of the hotel or tear through windows.

"We would talk and go through all these paranoid scenarios," Chance said. "What if Kadafi's army makes a last stand? What if it's in the hotel lobby and we are stuck in basement or the top floor?"

With water and food in short supply from the start, the captives armed themselves with flashlights for a nighttime foray to the kitchen. "We opened fridges and cabinets and took cheese and dried fruit and water and the like," Chance said. "We hauled it all back to our sort of assembly area that we had set up on the upper floor."

The three dozen journalists talked continually about trying to escape. Perhaps they could scale walls behind the hotel and run. But they were not sure the entire group was fit enough to make it. Guards on the roof had Russian-made sniper rifles, with high-powered scopes.

From almost the start, the Westerners had been trying to persuade their guards that there was no point in holding them at the Rixos.

"They didn’t believe Kadafi would ever go away. They couldn't imagine Libya without Col. Kadafi," Chance said. "And when it finally sank in that that world outside the hotel had changed, that Kadafi was no longer there, things changed in an instant."

The ragtag crew of guards apologized, turned their rifles over to the journalists and fled into the streets of Tripoli. "It was a remarkable transformation they underwent," Chance said.

The International Committee for the Red Cross soon had four vehicles at the hotel, which is not far from the Kadafi compound overrun by rebels this week. The rescuers drove the journalists to safety. The reporter, who had kept the outside world apprised of the situation via Twitter, posted another missive just before 5 p.m. Wednesday, local time: "Rixos crisis ends. All journalists are out!"

The situation for journalists in the country remained dicey, though. Four Italian journalists were reported kidnapped Wednesday on a road about 50 miles outside the capital. There was no word on their  whereabouts.

On Wednesday evening, Chance said he was still looking for a good meal and to rotating out of the war zone. He has been based for several years in Moscow, but is relocating to London with his wife and young girl. "She starts school Sept. 5. I want to be able to take her."

Chance said he will be back to cover the Libyan revolution. He is not sure when. But he knows one thing: "I'm not going back to the Rixos. I wouldn't give it a good review at all."

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Journalists, including CNN's Matthew Chance, right, arrive at the Corinthia hotel after being evacuated by the Red Cross from the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, where they had been held captive for five days by loyalists of dictator Moammar Kadafi. Credit:  Paul Hackett / Reuters

 

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