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Homecoming For Reporter Held In Sudan

American journalist Paul Salopek returned home to New Mexico on Sunday, after being freed a day earlier from prison in the war-torn Darfur region of Sudan where he was held on espionage charges.

The Chicago Tribune journalist, who lives in Columbus, New Mexico, wore a slight smile as he got off the plane and received a big hug from his wife and one of his editors shortly after his plane landed at the Albuquerque airport.

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 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 Chadian driver, Abdulraham Anu, and his interpreter, Suleiman Abakar Moussa, also were released. The two were to go to Chad, according to a story published Saturday on the Chicago Tribune's Web site.

Salopek's wife, Linda Lynch, and Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski traveled on the plane with the freed journalist from Sudan to New Mexico. Chris Johns, National Geographic magazine's editor and chief, met the group in Albuquerque.

On Saturday, Salopek said during a brief news conference in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, that his "treatment was excellent" while in prison.

"I am now happy for having Paul released, that we have reunited. I am also grateful for President al-Bashir and Governor Richardson and all the people who helped in the release of Paul," Lynch said Saturday.

A judge in the North Darfur capital of el-Fasher released Salopek and his assistants after a 13-minute hearing.

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 had a long-term relationship with President al-Bashir and Sudan's Ambassador to the United States, Khadir Haroun Ahmed, which dates back to 1996, the governor's office said in a news release.

That year, Richardson helped get three Red Cross workers, including an Albuquerque pilot, released from Marxist rebels in Sudan.

Salopek, who won Pulitzer Prizes in 2001 and in 1998, was working on an article about the people, culture and history of the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel at the time of his arrest.

In his hometown of Columbus, a town in southwest New Mexico on the Mexican border, many of the 2,000 townspeople placed yellow ribbons on their front doors, the bank and public buildings in support of Salopek's release, said Martha Skinner, a former Columbus mayor.

Skinner looks after the couple's home, an historical adobe building constructed in 1913 that housed the Hoover Hotel. She has been in e-mail contact with Lynch, who wanted to keep her telephone lines open, throughout Salopek's confinement.

Asked if the town planned to celebrate Salopek's return, Skinner said, "If we did, Paul would be mortified. He's so reticent."

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.

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