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'We truly thought we were going to die'

From Kevin Sites
CNN

Sites
Kevin Sites: "They told us we were American spies."

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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and newsmakers around the world. Kevin Sites reports on an incident he and his crew faced in northern Iraq on Friday.

ERBIL, Iraq (CNN) -- We were taken captive by Iraqi Fedayeen at a checkpoint just outside Tikrit in northern Iraq.

We've been reporting outside of Chamchamal, Iraq, since the war began, waiting for the fall of Kirkuk. On Thursday, we actually got into Kirkuk -- into the city. We saw the celebrations by the people. We saw the statue come down.

We had several reporters there, so we decided to head to the outskirts of town and see how far the retreat was. Iraqi army paratroopers were manning the checkpoint 20 kilometers southwest of Kirkuk after the city had fallen.

We decided to back off from that and spend the night in Kirkuk, and today [Friday] made another run toward Tikrit. That checkpoint was abandoned at that point, and we drove within 30 kilometers of Tikrit. That's Saddam Hussein's birthplace, obviously a stronghold of his supporters. (Full story)

We were very cautious going along the way. Every 3,000 meters we would stop, use our binoculars and see how far the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, had gotten.

We weren't trying to get ahead of the Peshmerga, who had moved their front lines forward.

We were traveling with them a great deal of the time. But when we actually got to this checkpoint, we seemed to be a bit ahead of them. It was about 11 a.m.

And as we moved up on the final checkpoint, some men beckoned us to come a little bit closer. We looked at them. They didn't look like Peshmerga. And they stopped us. We told them that we were journalists, and they made us get out of the car and they told us we were American spies, started to get very angry with us, started to point their Kalashnikovs at us.

We said, "We're journalists. We're not here to do you any harm. We simply want to see what's going on in Tikrit."

At that point, they started to get very violent. They pointed their gun at me and said, "This one is certainly an American," and shot a round at my feet.

Saved by Kurdish translator

At that point, they made us get down on the ground on our knees. Now, the team I'm talking about is Bill Skinner, my photographer, Mitch Mitchelson, who is one of the security people who have been helping us here, and a translator, Tofik. He is a Kurdish national. Without Tofik, we probably wouldn't be alive.

Tofik talked to these gentlemen the whole time that they were holding us captive -- tried to calm them down, say that we're not here to do any harm. But they felt that certainly we were American spies. They kicked Bill Skinner in the head. They kicked Mitch in the head and in the ribs. And they tied me up. They tied my hands behind my back and threw us in a truck and said that they were going to take us to Tikrit, to the intelligence headquarters.

At that point, our translator said, "If they take you to the headquarters of the intelligence service, you're certainly going to die. You'll be executed."

One of the men who was in the truck with us was a villager. And he said, "Since we captured these men in the village, we should take them to the village elders and talk to them first." And that was probably the saving grace.

They took us to the village elders, and we talked to them. And Tofik was very fast on his feet. He said, "If you kill these men, there could be great retribution for you. The town could be bombarded. There could be great trouble for you." He went on the offensive and scared them a bit.

They started to back off at that point. But they held us for another two hours there and questioned us.

The people of the village, I have to say, were very kind to us. They didn't want any trouble. The Fedayeen were the people that were the most aggressive.

Area in control of Iraqi forces

It just gives an indication that the area south of Kirkuk, going toward Tikrit, is still very much in the control of Saddam Hussein supporters.

They still believe in his government and they're willing to make a last stand.

It was a scary day today. We got out with the clothes on our back. They took all of our gear, our camera gear, our videophones -- everything we needed to do our job, they took. They put a bullet through the engine block of our truck.

We were able to limp back with one vehicle and our lives. But we're lucky to have that.

From the time that we were captured to the time that we were released, it was about four hours.

There were times when we truly thought we were going to die. They put the muzzle against the head of my translator. They shot a round off at my feet. They shot a couple other rounds off.

But it was a roller-coaster ride -- the times when they said they were going to kill us, and then the times they said they were going to set us free. It kept on going back and forth for about four hours. And that was the most frightening aspect of it -- the uncertainty of the whole thing.


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