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Families of Spanish journalists abducted in Syria break their silence

Two Spanish journalists kidnapped in September near Syria’s border with Turkey are believed to be held by an Al Qaeda-allied rebel group.

Breaking a self-imposed silence, families of two Spanish reporters abducted in Syria three months ago by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group appealed Tuesday for their immediate release.

The two men join a growing list of journalists kidnapped or captured in Syria and whose plights are routinely kept from public view while negotiations are ongoing. Press advocacy groups say that at least 30 journalists are missing in Syria, mostly after entering rebel-held territory. For families and colleagues, deciding whether or not to draw attention to a suspected kidnapping can be an agonizing decision.

Javier Espinosa, a correspondent for the Madridnewspaper El Mundo, and Ricardo García Vilanova, a freelance photographer working with Espinosa, were kidnapped on Sept. 16 at a checkpoint in Tal-Abyad, near the Turkish border. El Mundo and the relatives said the kidnappers belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), a militant group linked to Al Qaeda and one of several jihadist groups operating in Syria.

At the time, the reporters were being escorted out of Syria at the end of a two-week assignment by four fighters from the Free Syria Army, another rebel group. The four fighters were also detained by ISIS, but later released.

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Speaking at a Madrid news conference, El Mundo director Pedro Ramírez said that the Spanish government, as well as the newspaper, family members, and several press freedom organizations, had all tried to seek the men’s release, but that ISIS had not replied. 

“Unfortunately, efforts to liberate them haven’t worked and because of that, after mutual agreement with their families, we decided to [publicize] the situation,” Mr. Ramírez said.

The newspaper said it had been in indirect contact with the kidnappers, who had not presented any clear demands in return for the men’s release. During this time, news of their capture was kept quiet. Ramírez said they had since decided to go public because contact had broken down.    

A Spanish journalist who worked for Barcelona’s El Periodico, Marc Marginedas, is also missing in Syria. He may have been captured by ISIS or allied jihadist militias fighting a civil war againstPresident Bashar al Assad, El Periodico said. It’s not clear whether Mr. Marginedas is with the other missing Spanish reporters.

Mr. Espinosa, a veteran war correspondent based in Beirut, had reported extensively in Syria and previously covered conflicts in Iraq, Sierra Leone, and the Balkans. Mr. García is also a veteran of war zones and had previously been detained by ISIS for 10 days in Aleppo during a previous assignment in Syria.

 “I’m hopeful these three kidnappings will be resolved quickly, although for now all we have is information about them that we can’t even confirm,” said Gervasio Sánchez, a journalist who spoke on behalf of relatives of the detainees.

‘Under investigation’

The last time that the two journalist were heard of was just hours before their abduction. There is no proof they are alive, although the last witness account from a month ago suggests they are being well treated and in the same area they were taken, Sánchez and Ramirez said.

ISIS said that the two journalists are “under investigation,” Sánchez said.

Syria, with its brutal and chaotic ongoing civil war,  is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.  About 30 journalists are still missing in there, with several cases not being publicized at the request of family members and news outlets, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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A Polish journalist was released last month. In November two Swedish journalists were kidnapped. Several US journalists have also been detained, including Austin Tice, who disappeared in 2012 and is suspected to be in government custody.

Since the uprising began in early 2011 against President Assad’s regime, at least 55 journalists, mostly Syrians, have been killed in the conflict. 

“The abductions of Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia-Vilanova show that even the most experienced journalists are at risk in Syria, the most dangerous country in the world for the press,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator.