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4 Italian journalists siezed in Syria days after Assad extends offer of amnesty to kidnappers

Defaced pictures of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) and the current President Bashar al-Assad, are seen on a damaged mural at a regime's security base after it was seized by rebel fighters in Deir al-Zor
Defaced pictures of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) and the current President Bashar al-Assad, are seen on a damaged mural at a regime's security base after it was seized by rebel fighters in Deir al-Zor

REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

The International Press Institute (IPI) condemned the abduction of four Italian journalists in Syria and demanded their immediate release, as well as the release of three other journalists currently believed to be detained in Syria.

On April 5, Italy's Foreign Ministry confirmed that four Italian journalists had been abducted during the previous night in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. The Ministry said that the families of the detainees had already been informed, but declined to provide any further information on the captives or their captors.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica identified the hostage-takers as a “rebel group” and the hostages as three freelance journalists and one reporter for Italian public broadcaster RAI. La Repubblica said the journalists entered Syria earlier this month with the intention of working by day in Syria and crossing into Turkey in the evening.

The journalists were detained just days after Syria's state news agency SANA said that President Bashar al-Assad had extended an offer of amnesty to kidnappers. In an April 2 decree, Assad reportedly gave kidnappers in the country 15 days to hand over victims or face a lifetime of hard labour and a possible death sentence in the event that a victim was killed, permanently disabled or sexually abused.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “We condemn the kidnapping of the Italian journalists and call not only for their immediate release but also for the release of all other reporters currently detained in Syria, the world's most dangerous place for journalists. We urge both the authorities and the rebels to respect journalists' status as non-combatants and to take adequate steps to locate and release all journalists currently missing and believed to be in Syria.”

A number of other foreign journalists believed to be in Syria remain missing. Austin Tice, an American freelance reporter, has been missing since Aug. 13, 2012. A video that showed him alive was released in October, but no subsequent news on his whereabouts has emerged.

Bashar Al Fahmi, a cameraman for the U.S-funded Arabic channel Al Hurra, was kidnapped along with reporter Cüneyt Ünal on Aug. 20, 2012. Syrian authorities released Ünal in November, but Al Fahmi's whereabouts are still unknown.

American war correspondent James Foley, 39, was abducted in Idlib province on Nov. 22, 2012. His whereabouts are also unknown. The journalist's family has set up a website to raise awareness about his plight and to appeal for information.

On Mar. 11, news surfaced that Ukrainian journalist Anhar Kochneva had escaped after nearly five months in captivity. Kochneva was captured in October 2012 by individuals she described upon her release as rebels.

Her reported captors initially demanded a $50 million ransom by Dec. 13, a deadline that was later extended. In January 2013, international news reports stated that the militants who reportedly held her were demanding a reduced ransom of $20 million. Kochneva, who travelled to Ukraine and Russia following her release, has now reportedly returned to Syria to fulfil a commitment she made following her release to “do everything so that people find out what is really happening here".

Syria is currently one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and the most deadly. According to IPI's Death Watch, more than 40 journalists have been killed in the country since the current conflict between loyalist and anti-government forces began in March 2011.

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