Two Spanish journalists held by Qaeda-linked group in Syria

AFP , Tuesday 10 Dec 2013

A radical group linked to Al-Qaeda kidnapped two Spanish journalists reporting in Syria in September and is holding them captive, El Mundo newspaper reported on Tuesday.

El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, a freelance photographer, were seized on September 16 in Raqa province, the Spanish daily said on its website.

In an emotional press conference in Beirut, hours after El Mundo announced the kidnapping, Espinosa's wife urged the journalists' captors to free them.

El Mundo said the pair was kidnapped at a checkpoint near the Turkish border as they tried to leave Syria at the end of a two-week reporting mission.

They were taken along with four members of the Free Syrian Army, the main western-backed rebel group fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, who were supposed to protect them, the newspaper said. The four Syrians were later released.

The newspaper identified the captors as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist faction in Syria with roots in Al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate

El Mundo said it had kept the kidnapping quiet until now while it held indirect communications with the captors, who have still not asked for anything in return for their captives.

In Beirut, Espinosa's wife Monica Prieto said the pair had "travelled a dozen times to Syria to document war crimes, risking their lives, and becoming brothers with the Syrians in their fear, misery and humanitarian crisis."

"They have done so because we believe the Syrian people need our work, and that we must live up to our responsibility," said Prieto, wearing a veil.

"But you, as Syrians, also have a responsibility towards all those, Arabs and Westerners, who have defended you," she added.

"Javier and Ricardo are not your enemy. Please, honour the revolution they protected, and set them free."

Family friend and fellow journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad told reporters the most recent information about the missing pair was "about a month ago, when we heard reports they were alive".

"But we have no direct communication with the kidnappers," despite three months of attempts, Abdul-Ahad said.

Espinosa has been a Middle East correspondent for El Mundo since 2002, based in Beirut.

Like Vilanova, he has covered some of the most dangerous points in the Syrian conflict, including the siege of Homs in February 2012, which killed some 700 people including US reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Vilanova has worked for media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and Agence France-Presse, for whom he has contributed reports from Libya and Syria.

"Espinosa and Vilanova share the spirit of sacrifice necessary to cover conflicts, where difficulties and sometimes suffering are a challenge," El Mundo wrote on Tuesday.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders ranks Syria as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

Twenty-five journalists have been killed there since the start of the conflict in early 2011, and a similar number are missing or detained, it estimated last month.

Among the missing is another AFP contributor, US freelancer James Foley. He was seized by armed men in the northern Syrian province of Idlib on November 22 last year, according to witnesses.

Another Spanish journalist was kidnapped in Syria in early September.

Marc Marginedas, a correspondent for the Catalan daily El Periodico, has been "in the hands of an insurgent group" since September 4, the newspaper announced on September 23.

"Nobody makes money, fame or recognition from this kind of job," Vilanova told AFP in August 2012. "But it is our passion, even if it may end badly."

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