By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
9:08 PM EDT, August 24, 2011
Matthew VanDyke, the Baltimore man who went missing in Libya more than five months ago, re-emerged in Tripoli on Wednesday and told his family that he had been held captive by Moammar Gadhafi's government in one of the country's most notorious prisons.
The 32-year-old VanDyke, who traveled to Libya in March to witness the then-fledging revolution for a book he is writing about the region, borrowed a cellphone and called his mother Wednesday afternoon.
It was Sharon VanDyke's first contact with her son since he sent GPS coordinates March 13 that placed him near Brega.
His escape from the Abu Salim prison, where he told his mother he was held in solitary confinement through much of the ordeal, came as rebels continued to clash with pro-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli.
U.S. officials said they were working to bring VanDyke and other American citizens home despite the chaotic and still-dangerous conditions in Libya.
VanDyke, who has traveled extensively in the Middle East, was still wearing prisoner's clothing as he navigated the Libyan capital, his mother said. He did not know his precise location when he called, she said.
"He sounded fine and said, 'Hi, mom,' saying what I wanted to hear all along," said a jubilant Sharon VanDyke, who has fought for months to bring attention to her son's plight. "He sounded fine, other than he said he thought maybe he lost his voice because he didn't have anybody to talk to for six months."
VanDyke was one of six U.S. citizens missing or presumed held in Libya. The State Department said Wednesday that all citizens who were known to be held had been released but that the administration remained concerned about their welfare and safety.
"We are diligently working through a variety of contacts, including the Hungarian Embassy in Tripoli, which serves as our protecting power, to provide assistance to those who may require it," a State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said in a statement. "To the extent possible, we are in contact with those U.S. citizens in Tripoli who have alerted us to their presence. Interruptions in communications services, however, are frequent."
Sharon VanDyke, a retired principal of Federal Hill Preparatory School, said her son called home about 2 p.m. and spoke with his girlfriend, Lauren Fischer. He then called back 30 minutes later to speak with his mother. Sharon VanDyke said she does not have any means to contact him directly.
Sharon VanDyke said her son reported escaping from Abu Salim with the help of other prisoners. Conditions at the Tripoli facility have long been condemned by human rights groups.
Fischer said that VanDyke told her he was in good health and had been fed adequately.
She described the VanDyke family as "excited and relieved."
Matthew VanDyke's reappearance follows an intense effort by both his mother and Fischer to keep pressure on government officials to locate him. Sharon VanDyke traveled to Turkey earlier this year and, with photos of her son in hand, knocked on doors of embassies that maintained diplomatic relations with Libya.
The family also enlisted the help of Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who helped to focus public and government attention on VanDyke's case.
"We've been working on this for six months, so it was just great news," said the Baltimore County lawmaker, who is the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "But with what's going on in Tripoli right now, we still need to bring him home."
After VanDyke disappeared in March, the family had little to go on, other than a report from one of his friends that he believed he had been arrested by Gadhafi loyalists near Brega.
Sharon VanDyke's spirits were lifted earlier this month when Gadhafi officials acknowledged that they had detained her son. But details of his condition and whereabouts remained unclear.
Then, after a months-long military stalemate, rebels captured most of Tripoli over the weekend, with support from NATO. Despite the progress, Sharon VanDyke said she was more worried than ever as she sat glued to television news reports of the unfolding events.
VanDyke's reappearance came on the same day that dozens of international journalists who were holed up in a Tripoli hotel also were released.
Without a U.S. presence on the ground in Libya, Ruppersberger said, the chaos inside Tripoli will make bringing VanDyke home a challenge. He said Hungarian diplomats could play an important role in that effort.
"We still have a long a way to go," he said.
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