Under mounting international pressure, the Liberian government today released a British television crew that was being held on charges of espionage in the West African country.
Justice Minister Eddington Varmah said the government had agreed to release the four journalists from London-based Insight News Television — two Britons, a South African and a Sierra Leonean — in exchange for an apology.
“As far as the government is concerned, with the dropping of these charges, this case is closed,” Varmah said at a news conference.
In a short handwritten letter to President Charles Taylor, the journalists apologized “to both his excellency the president of Liberia and the people of Liberia for any offense that our action or statements have caused.”
In a live interview with CNN by satellite, Taylor said the Liberian government had reviewed the journalists’ appeal and apology and decided to release them immediately.
“We are not expelling the journalists, but they are free to leave whenever they want,” he said.
Varmah said the government agreed to drop the charges on “humanitarian grounds,” and not for lack of evidence.
Tired But Relieved
The men, who said they were under instructions not to speak to the media, were released from Monrovia’s central prison earlier today and accompanied to the international airport by British and Sierra Leonean diplomats.
Looking tired but relieved, they met with reporters in the VIP lounge drinking bottles of mineral water and watching coverage of their release on television before catching a charter flight to nearby Abidjan, Ivory Coast, en route home.
“This will be an enormous relief for the men’s families,” British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said in London. “I am grateful to all those friends in the international community who have supported our calls for the men’s swift release.”
A spokeswoman for Channel Four said the four journalists had arrived at Abidjan and were establishing contact with their relatives. Journalist Sorious Samura, director David Barrie and cameraman Tim Lambon were en route to Britain. A citizen of Sierra Leone, Samura had been working in Britain for almost a year before taking on this assignment. Samura has been honored for his film Cry Freetown about the 1999 invasion of Sierra Leone’s capital.
The other member of the film crew, South African cameraman Gugu Radebe, is heading back to South Africa.
Ties to Sierra Leone’s Rebels?
The journalists had been in Liberia for three weeks working on a documentary film when they were arrested Aug. 18 at their hotel in the capital, Monrovia.
They were formally charged Monday after authorities reviewed their videotapes and found material they said was “damaging” to the Liberian government and the security of the state.
The indictment said the government believed their documentary would try to support British and American allegations of Liberian government involvement in diamond-smuggling and gunrunning for neighboring Sierra Leone’s brutal rebel army.
Taylor, a former warlord with longtime ties to the Sierra Leone rebels, has repeatedly denied Liberia is acting as a conduit for the rebels.
Channel 4, the British network that commissioned the documentary, said the journalists had suffered “mental abuse” while being held overnight Tuesday at the headquarters of the National Security Agency, a criminal investigation unit under Taylor’s personal control. The men were alternately kept in Monrovia’s central prison and a police station the rest of the time.
The arrests angered international leaders and press organizations. Former President Carter, American civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former South African President Nelson Mandela joined a chorus of appeals for the journalists’ release.
ABCNEWS.com’s Leela Jacinto, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.