BEIRUT: Lebanese journalist Fidaa Itani has been freed from house arrest in Syria but has chosen to remain in the country, a mediator between Lebanese officials and Syrian rebels told The Daily Star Monday.
“He is free now; he is no longer under house arrest. Fidaa Itani’s case has been solved and it is up to him when to return back to Lebanon,” said the mediator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A former reporter for Al-Akhbar newspaper, Itani now works for LBCI and was in Azaz, near Aleppo, on a field report when he was detained by a group of Syrian rebels. Itani is now preparing a new report on the 9 Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped in Syria in May, two of whom have been released so far, the mediator said.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel refused to confirm or deny that Itani has been freed but said he would return to Lebanon this week.
LBCI television chief Pierre Daher also said he would not confirm the news of Itani’s release until the journalist himself personally speaks to LBC, saying “everything else would be pure speculation.”
The rebels, who belong to the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade, said Itani was detained after they had received a number of suspicious reports about him from Syrian rebels across the country.
According to the mediator, Itani would likely return to Lebanon via Turkey in a matter of hours or days, depending on when he would conclude his report on the pilgrims, who are also being held in Azaz.
Hours after video footage of Itani was uploaded to YouTube by the rebels Sunday, the head of the Syrian National Council Abdel-Basset Sida condemned the journalist’s detention and called on the rebels to cease interference in the work of the media.
“We denounce and reject the kidnapping of Fidaa Itani,” Sida told a local newspaper in an interview published Monday, vowing that the Lebanese journalist would soon be released.
The SNC chief also said that those participating in the Syrian revolution should respect and preserve the freedom of others.
“The revolution should abide by the [U.N.] charter on human rights and respect the freedom and dignity of journalists as they are supporting the revolution and helping it to echo throughout the world,” he said.
Sida, who heads the largest political umbrella of the Syrian opposition, also rejected all forms of kidnappings and detentions by the rebels.
The YouTube video, which was also posted on the Facebook page of the Azaz Northern Brigade, was created to communicate to Itani’s family that he was in good health.
“I am the journalist Fidaa Itani. I am under house arrest at the Azaz Northern Storm Brigade ... And I am fine,” Itani said in the 20-second clip.
Officials in Beirut had voiced optimism earlier Monday and said that their talks with mediators had achieved positive results regarding Itani’s detention.
“Journalist Fidaa Itani will be released in the nearest future, and his detention was only part of an investigation linked to the field reporting he was working on,” said Labor Minister Salim Jreissati, who chairs the ministerial committee on the kidnapped Lebanese in Syria.
“There were serious discussions between the Interior Ministry and the relevant channels today,” Jreissati said.
Jreissati also called on the Lebanese to avoid traveling to conflict-torn regions in Syria until further notice.
“I also call on the journalists to avoid traveling to regions like Azaz, where Fidaa was detained and other Lebanese were kidnapped,” the minister added.
The 9 Lebanese hostages were kidnapped shortly after entering Syria from Turkey, following a pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran.
Radwan Hamzeh, head of the Audiovisual Journalists’ Union, stressed the increasing dangers facing journalists working in Syria.
“The union warns against a great danger to the freedom of the journalists in light of the detention of Itani, who was placed under house arrest by an armed group in the Syrian region of Azaz,” Hamzeh said in a statement.