Sudan's president agreed Friday to release a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and two Chadians jailed on charges of espionage after meeting with a U.S. governor, a spokesman for the governor said.
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico secured the release of Chicago Tribune journalist Paul Salopek, his driver and interpreter on humanitarian grounds after meeting with President Omar al-Bashir at the president's palace soon after the governor arrived in Khartoum, said Richardson's spokesman Pahl Shipley.
Richardson was scheduled on Saturday to pick up Salopek and his colleagues, who were in custody in the war-torn region of Darfur. The Sudanese government confirmed the release but did not provide additional comment.
"I emphasized to the President that releasing these men was the right thing to do because Paul Salopek is not a spy, he is my constituent and a respected journalist who was attempting to do his job telling the story of the people, culture and history of the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel," Richardson said in a written statement.
Salopek, who has a home in New Mexico, was on assignment for National Geographic Magazine when he was arrested last month and charged with espionage, passing information illegally, writing "false news" and entering the African country without a visa. His trial was set to resume Sunday before a judge in the North Darfur capital of el-Fasher.
His wife, Linda, had traveled with Richardson to Sudan to help secure his release, Shipley said.
Chris Johns, the editor in chief of National Geographic Magazine, said he was "overjoyed" that Salopek and his two assistants were being released.
"We are incredibly grateful to the wide circle of individuals and organizations that helped in the effort to secure Paul's release. And we are especially appreciative of the personal role Governor Richardson took in the process that has to led this outcome," Johns said in a written statement.
In 2001, Salopek won a Pulitzer for international reporting for his work covering Africa. In 1998, he won a Pulitzer for explanatory reporting for his coverage of the Human Genome Diversity Project.
Richardson, a former U.S. congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary during the Clinton administration, secured the release in 1996 of three Red Cross workers, including an Albuquerque pilot, from Marxist rebels in Sudan.
Richardson also has traveled to Iraq, North Korea and Cuba to gain the release of Americans held prisoner. Last year, he went to North Korea at the communist government's invitation.
The Sudanese government has a history of tension with the press and aid groups, which have previously accused Khartoum of unnecessarily restricting access, especially in the conflict-ridden Darfur region.
More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003 when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Arab-led Khartoum government.
The United Nations and aid organizations have warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Darfur, saying violence has mounted since a peace agreement was signed in May by the Sudanese government and one of the region's major rebel groups.
Al-Bashir last week ordered the release of an envoy of Slovenia's president who was convicted of espionage in Darfur. Tomo Kriznar, the Slovenian president's envoy to Darfur, was arrested in July and convicted on Aug. 14.