Free at last: US writer who thought he would die in Gaddafi's prison

For Matthew VanDyke, held in solitary confinement since March, the rebels' arrival in Tripoli marked the end of a grotesque nightmare

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The Independent Online

An American writer who spent five months languishing in a Libyan prison spoke of his relief yesterday at being freed by rebel fighters.

Matthew VanDyke, a freelance writer from Baltimore who has travelled extensively in the Middle East on his motorbike, was seized by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on 13 March near the town of Brega. He had previously travelled to Libya in 2008 and decided to return to the country when revolution broke out in late February.

Ambushed by regime forces on what was then a constantly shifting front line, he was taken to Tripoli and held in solitary confinement in the capital's notorious Abu Salim prison. His family began a campaign to try to free him but Colonel Gaddafi's government refused to confirm whether he was in its custody.

Speaking to the BBC World Service yesterday, Mr VanDyke described hearing the cries of fellow prisoners being tortured by prison guards. "I believe we were ambushed," he said, recounting his capture. "I was hit in the head and I woke up in a room to the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above."

He added: "They told me nothing about what I was accused of, whether I would ever be released; they just locked me in a room and gave me food, kept me alive, and no real interaction with anybody for about six months. I thought they would execute me. I never knew."

The Independent yesterday spoke to Haytham Abdullah, a Libyan freedom fighter who was captured by Gaddafi forces in Zawiyah and shared a cell next to Mr VanDyke until they were released on Wednesday evening. "The rebels broke into the prison and set us free," he said. "We are so happy. Matthew was my neighbour for 50 days." He added: "I just want to thank England for helping us get rid of that motherfucker Gaddafi. Please excuse my language."

The United States yesterday said that, after Mr VanDyke's escape, all American citizens in Libya had been accounted for. His freedom also brings an end to a harrowing ordeal for his family, who battled to discover his whereabouts and campaigned for his release.

Speaking from her home in Baltimore, Mr VanDyke's mother, Sharon, said she was deeply relieved to receive a call from her son telling her that he was safe. "It's the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline rush that motivates him," she said, explaining her son's reasons for travelling to dangerous places," she said. "He's writing a book about riding his motorbike through the Middle East. Of all the places he travelled to, Libya was the country he loved the most. When the revolution broke out he felt compelled to travel there."

Ms VanDyke said that her son was intending to stay in Libya because he wanted to try to locate some of his friends who have gone missing. "He always said he'd stay until Gaddafi goes," she said. "We keep trying to tell him that Gaddafi is gone but he wants to find out what happened to his friends."

Meanwhile, Nuri Lamin, a Libyan in London who was waiting to hear from two uncles who were arrested by regime forces two days before the February revolution began, said that both had now been located. "They were held in Abu Salim prison but they managed to escape with around 20 other people about a month ago," he said. "They stayed in a safe house near Abu Salim. There were too many Gaddafi troops so they couldn't flee to the western mountains. We just found out now that they are back in Misrata and are safe."

Mohammed bin Lamin is one of Libya's best-known artists and his brother Habib is a poet. Prior to their arrests, both had urged the Libyan leader to embrace reform.

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