- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Times says it’s holding out hope that four of its journalists who went missing while covering the Libyan conflict are alive and in the custody of the Libyan government.

The four were last in contact with editors on Tuesday from the northern port city of Ajdabiya, where they were covering the retreat of rebels.

“We are grateful to the Libyan government for their assurance that if our journalists were captured they would be released promptly and unharmed,” Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a statement on Wednesday.

He said there were unconfirmed reports that the journalists had been detained at a government checkpoint between Ajdabiya and Benghazi, a rebel stronghold. If so, Mr. Keller said, they eventually would be taken to Tripoli.

“Beyond that, we’re still pretty much in the dark,” he added.

The missing journalists are Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, the newspaper’s Beirut bureau chief; Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer; and photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario. In 2009, Mr. Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban and later rescued by British commandos.

“Their families and their colleagues at The Times are anxiously seeking information about their situation, and praying that they are safe,” Mr. Keller said.

In September 2009, Mr. Farrell and Sultan Munadi, an Afghan journalist and interpreter who worked regularly with the Times and other news organizations, were taken hostage when they went to cover the aftermath of a NATO airstrike that killed scores of civilians in northern Afghanistan.

Mr. Munadi and a British commando died in the raid that rescued Mr. Farrell, a Briton.

Britain currently is holding an inquest into the death of the parachute regiment soldier, Cpl. John Harrison, in Salisbury, England. The inquest heard Wednesday that the soldier was shot dead just seconds after leading his unit out of a helicopter while under heavy insurgent fire during the rescue mission.

Mr. Farrell also was kidnapped in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq. He previously worked for the Times of London.

In 2008, New York Times reporter David Rohde was kidnapped while trying to make contact with a Taliban commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Rohde and an Afghan colleague escaped in June 2009 after seven months in captivity, most spent in Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says it has documented five assaults, 25 detentions, and dozens of attempts to obstruct or intimidate journalists as they try to cover Libya’s unrest.

The White House on Wednesday urged the Libyan government to refrain from harassing or using violence against journalists. Obama spokesman Jay Carney said the United States is firm in its belief that journalists should be protected and allowed to do their work.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said it was asking its correspondents in Libya to help track down the journalists‘ whereabouts.

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