Three Spanish journalists were released from confinement in Syria.
According to N.P.R., the Syrian government has freed Antonio Pampliega, Jose Manuel Lopez, and Angel Sastre from captivity. The trio had inadvertently wandered there by crossing down from Turkey’s southern border on July 12, 2015.
The journalists were reporting from the battlefront in and around Aleppo, news reports claim, when they suddenly went missing.
While the sight of the three reporters at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base in Madrid is being regarded by many in the international community as a welcome sign, it stands as a stark reminder of the dangers that any North American or European – let alone journalist – faces upon entering the Middle Eastern country.
The news follows the April 2015 release of U.S. citizen Kevin Dawes, following what N.P.R. called “lengthy negotiations” after four years, as well as the freeing of two other Spanish journalists in 2014. Not all journalists, however, are so lucky. U.S. citizen and writer Austin Tice disappeared in Syria back in August 2012 and has yet to be found.
Spain’s Defense Ministry – which provided the plane upon which the three journalists returned home – has yet to comment specifically on the group that had detained and subsequently released the hostages.
“Spanish government sources say their release was facilitated by [an affiliate] in Turkey and Qatar,” said N.P.R.‘s Alice Fordham, citing Spanish newspaper El Pais, “who have contact with many rebel groups, including Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate.”
This affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is believed to be the controlling entity for a portion of land north of Aleppo from which it is believed that the journalists were captured.
Despite the overall glaring lack of knowledge as to how the three journalists came to be released, acting Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told A.P. that the freeing of the reporters came as a “big relief.”
This was especially true when it was learned that the journalists had been handed over to al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch rather than the Islamic State group that is known to commonly kill its captives.
“It gave us some degree of comfort, within the anxiety of having three countrymen abducted and with some dark times when we had no news,” added Garcia-Margallo. “The intelligence service did a magnificent job.”
Tanju Bilgic of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, told the A.P. that the country’s intelligence agency cooperated fully with Spanish officials, but noted that he was not authorized to provide any operational details.
According to the A.P., it is “widely believed” that the Spanish government paid a ransom to see the journalists released back to its own soil. This practice, which is common in some European countries, is one that the United States has, in the past, refused.
“The United States has steadfastly refused to purse [paying ransoms],” noted The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, “arguing that it encourages more kidnappings.”
Meanwhile, the freed journalists issued a statement – via the European Federation of Journalists, or R.P.V.E. – that they were treated well while in captivity, albeit kept in the dark as to which part of the country they were being held during the 10-month stretch. This stress was further compounded, Lopez and Sastre noted, when they were separated from Pampliega less than three months into their captivation.
The journalists were, obviously, “overwhelmed” with the news that they would be reunited and sent back home.
[Image by Al-Jazeera via Getty Images]