Two Journalists Freed by Syrian Rebels After Weeklong Ordeal

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Correction Appended

CAIRO -- Two foreign journalists captured by Islamic extremists in Syria and held for a week were rescued by Syrian opposition fighters, one of them said on Friday.

A Dutch freelance photographer, Jeroen Oerlemans, contacted by telephone in Turkey, described a harrowing ordeal during which he and his captured colleague, a British photographer, John Cantlie, were held at a camp in Syria by a group of several dozen foreign jihadists, who kept them hooded and blindfolded and repeatedly threatened to kill them.

Mr. Oerlemans said their captors apparently included no Syrian fighters, but instead jihadists from Bangladesh, Britain, Chechnya and Pakistan. The photographers were seized July 19 shortly after they entered Syria at Bab al-Hawa, a border crossing with Turkey that has been reported under control of a jihadi group.

"They were only foreign jihadis, I don't think there was one Syrian among them," Mr. Oerlemans said. He estimated their numbers at 30 to 100. "They were from all over the world, I think." He also said the jihadists, who spoke English, talked of being under the leadership of an unidentified "emir."

A guide led them to the jihadists' tent camp in error, he said. At first their captors promised to release them if they could prove that they were journalists but later accused them of being spies and talked of holding them for ransom.

"They were definitely quite extreme in their religious beliefs," he said. "All day we were spoken to about the Koran and how they would bring Sharia law to Syria. I don't think they were Al Qaeda, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, 'We're not Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is down the road.' "

There have been growing reports of efforts by Al Qaeda to insinuate itself into the Syrian conflict, although spokesmen for Syria's opposition groups have denied that Al Qaeda has any role there.

The two journalists tried to escape from the camp at one point, but were both shot and recaptured. "We were really lucky," Mr. Oerlemans said. "Unbelievably lucky." He said he was wounded in the groin and Mr. Cantlie in the arm.

Their captors spoke incessantly about the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

"It was constantly on their minds, and they were saying, 'This is what you do to our guys,' " Mr. Oerlemans said. "They would cock their weapons and say, 'Prepare for the afterlife,' or, 'You better repent and accept Islam.' It was pretty terrifying, I can assure you."

Finally, Thursday evening, the two men were in a tent, blindfolded, when they heard a group of men come in. "They were shouting at everyone, saying, 'How long has this been going on, this is outrageous,' yelling at the jihadis, and then they told us, 'You are free.' Our hearts leapt of course."

Mr. Oerlemans said he assumed that their rescuers were fighters from the Free Syrian Army. They fired into the air during the rescue but more as a show of force to intimidate the jihadists, rather than as part of a firefight, he said.

Both journalists were escorted back across the border to Turkey.

Mr. Oerlemans is a freelancer with the British agency Panos Pictures. Mr. Cantlie, who was not immediately available for comment, is a freelancer who has previously done work for The Sunday Times of London.

Correction: July 27, 2012, Friday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the British journalist who was captured in Syria. He is John Cantlie, not Cantile. The article also misstated his relationship to the Sunday Times of London. While he has done work for it previously, he was not on assignment for the Sunday Times of London  when captured, the newspaper said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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