ALBUQUERQUE – American journalist Paul Salopek returned home to New Mexico on Sunday, a day after being freed from prison in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region where he was held on espionage charges.
The Chicago Tribune journalist, who lives in Columbus, N.M., wore a slight smile as he got off a private jet and later received a big hug from his wife and a National Geographic editor.
Salopek, 44, was on assignment for National Geographic magazine when he was arrested Aug. 6 and accused of passing information illegally, writing "false news" and entering the African country without a visa.
Salopek told a news conference that he initially had intended to travel only to the Chad-Sudan border, but made a last-minute decision to enter Darfur.
He and his Chadian colleagues — a driver, Abdulraham Anu, and an interpreter, Suleiman Abakar Moussa — were arrested within hours of arriving in Darfur, he said. The two colleagues were en route to Chad on Sunday, said Don Belt, a senior editor at National Geographic.
While in prison, Salopek said he saw daily protests against the United States and the United Nations.
But "generally, the conditions were good" at the prison where the trio was held in the same cell, he said.
Salopek was accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had traveled to Sudan on Friday to meet with President Omar al-Bashir and persuade him to release the journalist and his colleagues.
Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski also traveled on the aircraft from Sudan to New Mexico. The group was met in Albuquerque by Belt.
Lynch, who held her husband's hand during a news conference and smiled often at him, said she had been in the unenviable position of having to speak for him during his captivity.
"Today, to be able to watch him speak and be with him is inexpressibly joyful for me," Lynch said.
Lipinski said she was in constant touch with Lynch throughout the ordeal.
"To look over at her and see her giggling on the ride back was absolutely priceless," Lipinski said.
On Saturday, a judge in the North Darfur capital of el-Fasher released Salopek and his assistants after a 13-minute hearing. Salopek had been set to go on trial on Sunday.
Richardson — considered a possible contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 — is a former congressman and served as U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration.
Richardson has known the Sudanese president and Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khadir Haroun Ahmed, since 1996. That year, Richardson helped get three Red Cross workers, including an Albuquerque pilot, released from Marxist rebels in Sudan.
The governor said the Sudanese president agreed to Salopek's release after a 40-minute conversation with him.
"I think a good part of it was the relationship we had," Richardson said.
Salopek, who won Pulitzer Prizes in 1998 and 2001, said he had planned the trip to Chad's border with Sudan to look at how people live with war every day.
Salopek said he will head to his sister's home in the northern New Mexico town of Cordova before going to Columbus, a town on the Mexican border where many of the 2,000 inhabitants placed yellow ribbons on their front doors, the bank and public buildings to show support for the jailed journalist.
He then plans to "make rounds in Chicago and Washington to rack up an enormous beer tab," he said.
Salopek was detained weeks before Sudanese government forces on Aug. 28 launched a major offensive believed to involve thousands of troops backed up by bomber aircraft and helicopter gunships in a bid to flush out rebel strongholds in the troubled western region.
An understaffed and cash-starved African Union force of 7,000 peacekeeping troops has been unable to halt the violence in Darfur, a vast region the size of France, since a conflict began in 2003 between the Arab-led government and ethnic African rebels.
More than 200,000 people have died from war and starvation and 2.5 million have been displaced in Darfur.