In the five-star Rixos, the media can neither check out nor leave

Dozens of journalists are feeling increasingly uncomfortable in a luxury Tripoli hotel

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The Independent Online

The journalists trapped in the Rixos al Nasr have nicknamed it "Hotel California" – a surreal place, awash with paranoia, where you can check out but never leave.

As rebels fight their way through the Libyan capital, three dozen international correspondents remain holed up in the once lavish five-star hotel. Their minders have disappeared, their food and water is running out and – most crucially – the power that provides their link to the outside world flickers on and off.

Their Twitter messages have provided a snapshot of life inside from the ominous to the reassuring. Last night the CNN correspondent Matthew Chance wrote: "Shooting around #Rixos; journalists moving upstairs to safety." Moments later, he added: "Gunfire inside the hotel. Going on air."

Armed guards loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who have imprisoned the journalists in the 120-room hotel are still outside and the fear is they will become hostages or human shields for desperate remnants of the old regime.

In the past few days, the chimes and surreal intercom voice that had summoned them to press briefings in the middle of the night have been replaced by artillery explosions and sniper fire.

Amid the marbled, chandelier-lit hotel, complete with a luxury spa, the journalists have been forced to retreat to the basement on several occasions or exist by candle-light during frequent power cuts. Some have found the doors to their rooms kicked in and their property rifled through.

They have tried to stay upbeat despite the surrounding battles and the undoubted frustration that they remain trapped while correspondents with the rebels appear to have unfettered access. "For those worried about #Rixos This is not comfortable position but BBC CNN reuters AP fox sky china tv etc are all in good spirits," the BBC's Matthew Price said yesterday. From the beginning of the conflict the £500-a-night Rixos has proved a gilded cage for international correspondents, constantly under the watchful eye of Gaddafi minders determined to manipulate the media. Journalists could only leave with official chaperones.

The sinister undercurrent was shown in March, when Eman al-Obaidi burst in on journalists eating breakfast to expose her story about being raped by Gaddafi loyalists. Previously placid hotel staff suddenly wrestled with Ms Obaidi, beating journalists back.

Some, using the excuse of visiting the local convenience store or simply through grim determination, have managed to slip the net briefly but rumours abounded that taxi drivers were under strict instructions to return them to the authorities. Over the months the grip has become vice-like. But this weekend, as the rebels surged into Tripoli, the surreal façade of the hotel shattered. Mr Price described how the families of government officials and then the officials themselves began to disappear. Then the translators and state-television employees also left.

The minders who did remain started carrying guns. Moussa Ibrahim, the Libyan Information Minister, reappeared to give a press conference but soon vanished along with the other officials. Trucks loaded with anti-aircraft machine-guns appeared outside the Rixos and loyalist snipers were posted in the area.

As the hotel was rocked with explosions, the journalists donned body armour, lit candles and listened to the gunfire in the dark. The few kitchen staff that remained found food for them.

"We all want to go downtown to report on what's happening but it's not safe," said Reuters correspondent Missy Ryan on Sunday. "I wouldn't say we're hostages but nobody is going out."

Yesterday, as the BBC said it was doing everything it could to ensure the safety of its staff, the battle continued to rage around the Rixos as the reporters tried to access the internet and conserve the power on their satellite phones – their one lifeline to the outside world.

Journalists' tweets

"Went back to room earlier & the door had been kicked in, things rifled through. Nothing stolen... Boiled up a pot of water & made some hot sweet tea to lift everybody's spirits... Sniper took pot-shot at hotel & we all took cover. Journalists in #Rixos are fine, keeping together but have limited perspective on news... Huddled in basement."

Matthew Chance, CNN

"That sounded like mortar/rocket fire in distance... Don't want to hype situation. Doors not locked but we're unable to leave due to guards, snipers... May change in next few hrs inshallah... Speaking of hacking, twas v creepy to see printed copies of journos' private emails. Confirmed suspicions of govt online surveillance."

Missy Ryan, Reuters

"For those worried about #Rixos This is not comfortable position but BBC CNN reuters AP fox etc are all in good spirits... A beautiful Tripoli morning. Apart [from] the battle just starting up now. Rpg [rocket-propelled grenade] and gunfire."

Matthew Price, BBC