Feb. 3, 2011— -- A group of angry Egyptian men carjacked an ABC News crew and threatened to behead them today in the latest and most menacing attack on foreign reporters trying to cover the anti-government uprising.
Producer Brian Hartman, cameraman Akram Abi-hanna and two other ABC News employees were surrounded on a crowded road that leads from Cairo's airport to the city's downtown area.
While ABC News and other press agencies had been taking precautions to avoid volatile situations, the road to the airport had been a secure route until today. One of their two vehicles was carrying cameras and transmission equipment strapped to the roof, indicating they were foreign journalists.
Hartman says it was only through the appeal of Abi-hanna, who is Lebanese and a veteran ABC cameraman, that they were saved from being killed or severely beaten.
"We thought we were goners," Hartman said later. "We absolutely thought we were doomed."
Word of their harrowing ordeal came in a Twitter message from Hartman that stated, "Just escaped after being carjacked at a checkpoint and driven to a compound where men surrounded the car and threatened to behead us."
"The men released us only after our camera man appealed to the generous spirit of the Egyptian people, hugging and kissing an elder," he added in a subsequent tweet.
Watch a special hour-long edition of "Nightline" with Christiane Amanpour from Egypt tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET
Minutes after receiving news that Hartman had been safely released, ABC News anchor Christiane Amanpour and her team were surrounded and interrogated by a threatening crowd in Cairo when they were en route to the presidential palace to interview Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman. A rock was thrown through the car's windshield, shattering glass on the occupants.
For Complete Coverage of the Crisis in Egypt, Featuring Exclusive Reporting From Christiane Amanpour, Click Here
The alarm was sent back to ABC News headquarters in Cairo in a series of quick comments during a phone call. "We're in trouble on the bridge," was all that was initially said. The bridge is on the same road where Hartman and Abi-hanna were carjacked.
Moments later, the ABC News staffer said, "They're surrounding us."
Then cryptically, "We have to go."
Amanpour and her team were allowed to proceed, but it was the second time in two days that her team has been targeted by groups of men angry with foreign coverage of the demonstrations that are demanding President Hosni Mubarak end his 30-year rule by stepping down immediately.
Foreign news reporters have increasingly become targets of the attacks in Cairo as the Mubarak government teeters and over 100 reporters, including CNN's Anderson Cooper and CBS anchor Katie Couric, have been menaced, forced off the road, shoved against fences, and physically assaulted. A Greek reporter was stabbed in the leg.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the "systematic targeting" of journalists in Egypt, and the U.S. State Department described it as a "concerted campaign to intimidate."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured the Egyptian government in a news conference today that it "must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists' ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world."
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, "Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum that puts it in the company of the world's worst oppressors."
ABC News' Brian Hartman Threatened With Death
The growing fury was noted by Hartman in his tweets before his confrontation.
"Getting reports of journalists being attacked all over Cairo," he tweeted Wednesday.
Hartman and Abi-hanna headed for the airport today to collect equipment that had been impounded upon their arrival Tuesday. After collecting their gear, Hartman tweeted, "Cairo Airport security had to hold back a spitting mad man who was shouting at one of my colleagues about media bias against the govt."
In today's incident, Hartman said the two-car convoy was stopped at one of the many makeshift checkpoints that have sprung up around Cairo, most of them created by neighborhood groups to protect themselves from looters.
Their drivers were forced into the back seats and one man tried to snatch a camera from the car, but it was grabbed back. Men from the checkpoint drove them down "a dusty, beat up street where some people opened up the dinged-up barricades and drove us down to a dingy little cul de sac," Hartman said.
A large banner of Mubarak hung over the street and dozens of men were standing around, Hartman said.
"Then they directed our driver to take us down a dark, narrow alleyway. A man sitting next to me with a cigarette dropping ashes on my shoulder.... No way, we can't go down this alley, I told our driver, and he turned off the car."
The two vehicles were quickly engulfed by men who poured out of the alley.
"It gradually escalated, the tension and anger in their voice.... It was pretty clear we were in a threatening situation. People were making gestures and putting their fingers under my throat" and making a slitting motion, he said.
"A man in police uniform came up to me and said, 'So help me God.... I am going to cut off your head,'" Hartman recalled.
One man was yelling, "Cut their necks now, cut their necks now," and another pointed an imaginary machine gun at Hartman and made shooting noises.
"I couldn't see outside the windows except angry faces and the gestures. I thought we were absolutely doomed," Hartman said.
They were saved, he said, when Abi-hanna "lunged forward and gave a great big bear hug" to a man who appeared to be an elder of the neighborhood. "He gave him a kiss on each cheek and told the man referring to me, 'He is my guest. He is your guest in this country. Egyptian people are better than this."
Hartman said the cameraman appealed to the "renowned generosity of the Egyptian people."
Abi-hanna's words "seemed to calm the tensions down" enough for them to get the cars in gear and escape, despite the efforts of some to stop them.
Hartman said that through it all, none of their equipment was stolen and they were not punched or physically abused.
Reporters for other news outlets, including NBC, BBC and FOX, have reported that their hotel rooms have been ransacked.
Journalists Targeted in Egypt
Some men charged onto the roof of the Ramses Hilton Hotel where APTN maintains a satellite dish that networks, including ABC News, use to transmit their stories. They broke apart the dish and APTN technicians had to jump from the roof to another roof two floors below.
Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News, said, "We are assessing the security situation literally on a minute to minute basis. Our priority is to ensure the safety of all of our staff in the field."