South African photographer freed in Syria after three years as hostage
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes the release of Shiraaz Mohamed, a South African photojournalist who was held hostage for nearly three years in Syria, but points out that dozens of other journalists continue to be hostages in this war-torn country.
Mohamed’s release was announced by Gift of the Givers, the South African NGO for which he was working when he went to Syria. It reported on its official Facebook page that he “escaped” his captors on 15 December and was now with Turkish intelligence. The NGO said “friendly” people had helped him to leave Syria and to ensure that he was safe. According to its founder Imtiaz Sooliman, contacted by the South African radio Voice of the Cape, the journalist is "safe in Turkey and, through diplomatic channels, will return to South Africa soon".
Mohamed was abducted in January 2017 in Darkush, a town near the Turkish border in northern Syria. His captors provided a proof of life video in January 2018 and again in August 2019. In the second video, he asked the South African government to cooperate with his kidnappers.
“Aside from the relief of knowing that Shiraaz Mohamed will soon be reunited his family, his release also offers real hope for all the journalists of whom we have lost trace in Syria,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk.
“Nearly 30 journalist are still being held by their abductors in Syria. For some, the ordeal has dragged on for much too long. Some have been hostages since 2012. Everything must be done to obtain their release as quickly as possible.”
In the hours that followed the announcement of Mohamed’s release, several sources said his abduction had been claimed by Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a Jihadi group that controls the Idlib region near the Turkish border.
But HTS denied this claims though its news agency, Ebaa News, criticizing media “that want to defame [HTS] and ruin its reputation.” At the same time, HTS said it “appreciates the efforts of journalists helping to cover part of the reality of the zones liberated [by HTS] from the brutality of the regime and the Russian occupier.”
Three other foreign journalists are thought to be still held hostage in Syria. They are Austin Tice, who was arrested at a Damascus checkpoint in August 2012, and a two-member Sky News Arabia TV crew, Mauritanian reporter Ishak Moctar and Lebanese cameraman Samir Kassab, who were kidnapped in Raqqa by Islamic State in October 2016. John Cantlie, a British journalist kidnapped by Islamic State in Iraq, was seen for the last time in Mosul in December 2016.
Syria is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.