2 Swedish journalists freed in Syria amid concern for hostages


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Two Swedish journalists who’d been kidnapped by an unidentified rebel group in Syria last November have returned safely to Lebanon, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry said Wednesday. Both men were said to be at the Swedish Embassy in Beirut.

Who abducted the men and whether their release was related to the current fighting among Syria’s rebel factions was unknown. The details of how they won their freedom were uncertain. More than a dozen Western journalists have been kidnapped in northern Syria in recent months, and many of them were thought to have been in the hands of the al Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, whose forces have been driven from their bases in the past week by rival rebel factions.

Reporter Magnus Falkehed and photographer Niclas Hammarstrom were reported missing and believed abducted by rebels in western Syria in November while returning to Lebanon from a reporting trip, according to Swedish authorities, who announced the abduction in December.

One of the freed men told a Swedish newspaper that he’d been shot in the leg while attempting to escape earlier in captivity.

“I was extremely lucky to make it without bleeding to death,” Hammarstrom was quoted as saying by the newspaper, Aftonbladet.

In that same Swedish-language interview, portions of which were translated by news agencies, Hammarstrom said criminals had kidnapped the two freelancers on Nov. 23. After a few days in captivity, the two tried to escape only to be captured and Hammarstrom shot.

“Then they beat us thoroughly with different weapons,” he was quoted as saying.

He also said he was released under “dramatic” circumstances Sunday and made his way to Beirut in secret, while Falkehed was freed Wednesday and transported to the Lebanese border town of Arsal, a stronghold of rebel sympathy.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that it played a role Falkehed’s release and had transported him to the embassy in Beirut. Samar el Kadi said Hammarstrom had reached Beirut in another manner, but he didn’t elaborate except to say the ICRC didn’t help with the negotiations and had arranged transportation at the Swedish Embassy’s request.

“Great relief that the two Swedish journalists are out of Syria. But unfortunately there are still others held against their will,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter. He didn’t respond to a question about whether other Swedes still are missing in Syria.

A Swedish national police spokesman told Swedish news organizations that the journalists’ release was part of negotiations with unnamed “authorities” but didn’t elaborate.

A Western diplomat in Beirut said such negotiations usually were conducted by Lebanon’s head of general security, Abbas Ibrahim, who last year helped broker the release of nine Lebanese religious pilgrims who’d been held by rebels for more than a year and was key in helping to free two Turkish airline pilots who’d been kidnapped in retaliation in Beirut by families of the missing men. The diplomat spoke only on the condition of anonymity, lacking authorization to talk on the record to reporters.

Twenty to 30 foreign journalists and aid workers have gone missing in Syria, mostly in the last year. The majority of the abductions have gone unreported at the request of families and employers, in large part because of the complete absence of information on their fates.

A recent push by Syrian rebel units against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has raised concern about the fate of these hostages – the radical group is known to be holding at least eight, and perhaps many more, foreigners – as its positions, headquarters and jails have been overrun by other rebel groups.

The internal rebel fighting has been fierce, with both sides executing prisoners taken in the clashes. In several instances, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has massacred prisoners it was holding. None of the missing Westerners is known to have been executed, however.

Two American journalists, James Foley and Austin Tice, have been missing in Syria for more than a year. At least four other Americans are known to be held or are missing in Syria. McClatchy is withholding their names at the request of their families.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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