Three journalists return to Spain after Syria kidnapping
Three Spanish journalists who had been held hostage in Syria by an Al Qaeda-linked group returned on Sunday to Madrid where they were welcomed by overjoyed family members after nearly a year in captivity.
Antonio Pampliega, Jose Manuel Lopez and Angel Sastre were flown on a Spanish defence ministry jet from Turkey to Torrejon air base near Madrid where they were greeted by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria.
The three men could be seen smiling as they descended from the plane as officials held up umbrellas to shield them from driving rain, in a video released by the government.
Pampliega kissed his sister Alejandra on the forehead and gave her a hug after she ran to greet him.
“Crying from joy falls short,” she said on Twitter on Saturday when the news broke that the three experienced conflict zone reporters had been released and were in good health.
The release was “possible thanks to the collaboration of allies and friends especially in the final phase from Turkey and Qatar”, the Spanish government said Saturday, without giving further details.
Pampliega’s mother Maria del Mar Rodriguez Vega said she planned to cook her son’s favourite dish to celebrate his return — spinach with bechamel sauce.
“He had the same voice as always, from when he was a child, he
repeatedly asked me for forgiveness for what he made me go through,” she said in a statement released by the Spanish branch of media rights group Reporters Without Borders, known by its French acronym RSF.
– ‘Collaboration of allies and friends’ –
The three journalists were kidnapped by armed men on July 13 while they travelling together in a small van in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo where they had been reporting on fighting for various Spanish media.
They were held by Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, government sources told AFP.
The trio appear to have been treated better than three other Spanish journalists who were released in March 2014 after being held for six months in Syria by the Islamic State group, Al-Nusra’s rival which has executed many of its hostages, the sources added.
When news of the kidnapping broke, a week after the journalists went missing, the families of the hostages asked the media to keep quiet.
The case was handled by Spain’s National Intelligence Agency which tried to follow the kidnapped jounalists’ movements in Syria and get signs that they were alive and well, according to government sources.
The kidnappers sent media outlets videos showing the Spanish journalists, including one in late April intended as “a way to increase the pressure on Madrid at a particularly sensitive time” in the talks for their release, diplomatic sources said.
The Spanish journalists shared part of their time in captivity with Japanese freelance journalist Jumpei Yasada, who went missing in Syria in the middle of last year, according to Spain’s Europa Press news agency, which did not cite any sources.
Last month a video emerged of Yasuda, apparently asking for Tokyo’s help in securing his release.
– Experienced journalists –
Lopez, born in 1971, is a prize-winning photographer who contributed images to AFP from several war zones, including from the Syrian conflict up until 2013 and Iraq in 2014.
Pampliega, a freelance war correspondent born in 1982, contributed to AFP’s text coverage of the civil war in Syria for a period up to 2013.
A passionate reporter who tended to focus on human interest stories, he also contributed to AFP’s coverage in Iraq.
Sastre, 35, has worked in trouble spots around the world, including Syria, for Spanish television, radio and press.
RSF in 2015 ranked Syria as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists along with Iraq.
It says 139 journalists died in Syria, where various armed factions have been battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and each other since 2011.
In August 2014, Islamic State murdered US journalist James Foley, who was taken hostage in northern Syria in 2012.
The following month, the group killed fellow US journalist Steven Sotloff.
In 2015, militants from the group beheaded Japanese war correspondent Kenji Goto.