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Coalition attacks spare lives of journalists taken captive on Faw

AHWAZ, Iran—An illegal boat trip from Iran to Iraq turned into three days of terror for a television reporter and his camera operator, whom Iraqi tribesmen captured on the Faw peninsula and planned to execute Wednesday.

Their lives were unexpectedly spared by coalition attacks in southern Iraq near the city of Basra, where the men were to go to meet their fate. Instead, the Iraqis put the journalists in a wooden boat Wednesday afternoon and sent them back to Iran across the river that Iraqis call Shatt-Al-Arab, and Iranians, the Arvand.

"They first told us, `You are spies,'" Ali Montazeri, an Iranian reporter for the Dubai Business Channel and the Lebanese television service LBC, recalled Thursday night as he and Iranian camera operator Abdolreza Abbasi caught a flight back to Tehran.

Their captors were a plainclothes militia armed with handguns and Kalashnikov assault rifles who decided that the duo who crossed the 400-yard waterway between Iran and Iraq were spies trying to scout out Faw's embattled state for Iran.

What Montazeri, 38, and Abbasi, 25, were really in search of was a scoop. On Monday afternoon, the men convinced the Iranian fishermen they were doing a story on to take them to Faw, in hopes of talking to passers-by about conditions there four days into the war. They had barely finished interviewing an Iraqi on his bicycle, Abbasi said, when eight armed men raced up in two Toyota pickups and forced the journalists inside. The Iranians were punched and kicked during the 15-minute ride to a small village, the first of several where they would spend the next few days.

"I was very scared," Abbasi said. "I saw my death before my eyes."

But beatings turned to friendly kisses on each cheek when Montazeri explained to his captors in Arabic that they had come to alert TV viewers to their plight. The tribal sheik chastised the thugs. The journalists were offered scrambled eggs, bean and meat stew, and dates to eat. They were treated like family in their captors' homes.

They also learned why the coalition forces are facing tougher opposition than anyone expected.

For the largely Shiite inhabitants of Faw peninsula, a Muslim sect much oppressed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the war that America and Britain are waging is one of occupation, not liberation. The Western aim is to take control of Iraqi oil, these tribesmen believe. The captors said Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini Sistani, whom they follow, ordered them to resist the coalition.

"They weren't talking about Saddam Hussein, they were talking about defense of their country, of their way of life," Montazeri said. "They are looking to become martyrs."

The men said they were moved from house to house on the palm tree-laden peninsula, and spent their last night in a hamlet called al Bahrah. Their Iraqi captors easily evaded British forces, aware of the coalition troops' every move, Montazeri said.

On Tuesday, after a newscast about their disappearance on a Bahrain radio station that their captors heard, the men were told they were being released. The captors appeared concerned that Iranian forces might storm the peninsula for the two men. So the Iraqis took them to the river's edge to let them go, Montazeri said.

But unseen Iraqi superiors ordered the tribesmen to keep the Iranians captive. The next morning, their captors said, Montazeri and Abbasi would be driven to Basra to be sentenced and executed.

The U.S.-British attacks in southern Iraq put a stop to those plans. The road into Basra, Iraq's second largest city, was crawling with coalition forces and was too dangerous. They had a 95 percent chance of being killed on the road, the Iraqi captors told the journalists.

They took Montazeri and Abbasi back to the river and put them in a boat.

The Iraqis confiscated Montazeri's cellular phone and Abbasi's television camera, leaving them with only the plastic jacket for the microphone that identifies the station the men work for.

Iranian guards along the closed border who had been notified of the men's capture intercepted the boat and escorted them to safety.

"Two things saved us, that radio broadcast and the closure of the road," Montazeri said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.