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Maryland writer among journalists missing in Libya

Maryland writer among journalists missing in Libya

June 5th, 2011 by SARAH BRUMFIELD, Associated Press in News

BALTIMORE (AP) - As the uprisings of the "Arab Spring" began to unfold, writer Matthew VanDyke was at home in Baltimore, editing a book and film about his trips across the Middle East by motorcycle. An email from a friend in Libya convinced VanDyke dispatches from that country's war would make a perfect epilogue.

Now VanDyke has been missing nearly three months. His mother, Sharon, said the 31-year-old decided he had to be there when the friend asked VanDyke to tell others of the country's struggle if he was killed during the conflict.

He's one of 17 journalists - mostly Libyans - detained by dictator Moammar Gadhafi's government or believed to be in custody in Libya. At least five others have been killed as rebel forces try to topple Gadhafi's decades-old regime, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The last time Sharon VanDyke heard her son's voice, it was March 12 as he set off for a daytrip to Brega from Benghazi. He sent GPS coordinates the next day.

His girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, 28, said she wasn't immediately alarmed because VanDyke hadn't sent an SOS signal as he promised he would if he met serious trouble.

"I wasn't panicked," Fischer said. "He knows how to handle himself."

VanDyke dialed her son's number 30 to 40 times a day for the next week, getting the same Arabic recording. Then at 4 a.m. March 22, she got a call from a man with an Arabic accent who hung up. Later that day, she got through to her son's cell, but a stranger who answered said in English he was in Tripoli and she had the wrong number. Sharon asked for her son and his friend from Benghazi, Nouri Fonas.

"He said, "I hope you find your son,' then the line went dead," she said.

Phone companies confirmed that both calls involved her son's cell. Fonas told her someone spotted her son in a prison in Sirte. That gave her hope, but the secondhand information gives officials little to go on.

VanDyke is one of at least six Americans being held in Libya, and State Department officials are working to secure their release, said agency spokesman Mark Toner.

"You know, they've done nothing. They should be released. And they're simply caught up in this conflict," he said.

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, held a news conference May 23 to call attention to VanDyke's disappearance.

Two days later , Deputy Libyan Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said he had no information about VanDyke.

Libyan officials generally have not identified Libyan journalists in custody, and have only after days or weeks identified foreigners, Dayem said.

Libya's war is just one part of what has become known as the "Arab Spring." Longtime Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned the next month amid a popular uprising. Uprisings also have occurred in Syria and Bahrain.

VanDyke was raised in the same two-story, formstone townhouse across from a South Baltimore park that four earlier generations of his family have called home. After studying political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he earned a master's degree in security studies with a concentration in the Middle East in 2004 from Georgetown University in Washington.

UMBC professor Thomas Schaller called VanDyke one of his smartest students and said he's sure that, wherever VanDyke is, he's frustrated that he's not getting anything done.

"He has thirst for life and to do things that people told him he can't do or shouldn't do," Schaller said. "I just know he's going to come out on the other end with quite a yarn."

VanDyke met Fischer in 2006 in a hostel in Spain. He was waiting for his motorcycle to arrive so he could ride across north Africa and the Middle East, but he ended up staying in Spain eight months teaching English and fixing the bike, she said. He headed to Iraq in late 2006 with another motorcycle.

"He wanted to write a book and see the world he had studied about," Fischer said. "He wanted to do something more independent."

VanDyke approached The Baltimore Examiner newspaper, which is no longer publishing, in hopes of getting credentials to be embedded with the U.S. military. Editor Frank Keegan saw an opportunity to better inform readers about an important part of the world and get stories about local soldiers overseas. The paper published two of his stories.

"He's a level-headed guy with a lot of talent," he said. "He was not just some adventure-seeking kid who didn't know what he was getting into."

VanDyke traveled through Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Libya with periodic visits home. He lived frugally, got sponsorship through his blog and made some money by brokering a tire sealant deal in Kurdistan, his mother said.

While in Baghdad in 2009, VanDyke met photographer Daniel C. Britt, and they decided to make an East-meets-West travelogue film. Last year, they set off on a seven-month motorcycle trip through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, chronicling the people and places they found along the way.

Seeing VanDyke's resolve while they were detained for days north of Baghdad, accused of being al-Qaida and beaten, showed Britt that he had the ability to deal with problems.

"I have faith in his ability to remain calm, and that's helping me remain positive," Britt said. "Other than that, it's a pretty dark scenario."

For now, Sharon VanDyke, a retired elementary school principal, keeps a bag packed in case she hears any word about her son. She is considering a trip to Libya after bringing photos of her son to the Libyan embassy in Turkey last month.

Just as she gathered her son's clips during his previous travels, she has been pulling together news stories about Libya and other materials into binders that are taking over the dining room table.

"When he comes home, he's going to read all of these while Lauren and I go on vacation," she said.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Diaa Hadid in Tripoli, Libya, contributed to this report.