BEIRUT

Middle East

Ukrainian held by Syrian rebels appeals Russia

Kochneva disappeared Oct. 10.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: A Ukrainian woman abducted in Syria appealed in a handwritten letter to Syrian and Ukrainian authorities to intensify efforts to meet her kidnappers’ conditions and step up efforts to free her due to her health condition.

Anhar Kochneva’s letter, in Russian and delivered exclusively to The Daily Star, was released by her kidnappers under pressure from Syrian opposition figures who have ties with the kidnappers.

Since her abduction on Oct. 10 by a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, Kochneva has only appeared twice in short videos on YouTube.

The kidnappers, according to mediators involved in the case, have so far justified the media blackout on the issue because of the identity of the hostage and her role in the Syrian war.

The mediators added that the YouTube videos were released at her request to reassure her family of her well-being.

However, the kidnappers were finally persuaded to reveal Kotchneva’s letter after intense mediation efforts by figures in both the Syrian opposition and the FSA failed, the mediators said.

The kidnappers, who have refused to name their group and claimed they were part of Homs revolutionaries under the command of the FSA, said that personal photos of Kochneva would be released with the letter, noting that the pictures were taken off her personal computer.

Asked by mediators about their demands or the ransom they request to free Kochneva, the kidnappers said they are only asking for Russia to become a friend of the Syrian people, adding that the requested ransom is food aid for the Syrian people.

Kochneva’s abductors accuse Russia of supporting the Syrian regime’s continued killing of its own people.

The kidnappers, according to the mediators, said that up until now neither Russia nor Ukraine has made serious efforts to free Kochneva, despite claims that she was working as an interpreter and covering the war in Syria for several Russian media outlets.

They said the two governments have sent mediators who only contacted them to check on her well-being.

During November, the kidnappers released a video of Kochneva on YouTube confessing that she was working as an interpreter between Russian military experts and Syrian officers.

In the video, Kochneva mentions some of the officers she worked with and said that she had received instructions from slain Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Asef Shawkat.

She added that Shawkat had asked her at the time to go to Homs, where she played an undisclosed role in fierce battles in Baba Amr.

A blast at the headquarters of the National Security Bureau in Damascus on July 18 killed Shawkat along with Defense Minister Gen Daoud Rajiha, former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani and NSB chief Hisham Ikhtiar.

Al-Farouq battalion, under the command of Lt. Abdel Razzaq Tlas, which is said to be in control of rebel fighters and FSA troops in Homs region, declined to offer substantive information about Kochneva or provide details about her presence in Homs.

The battalion confirmed that Kotchneva is in good condition and is being treated well, without revealing any further information except that the group which kidnapped her is not under its command, but fighting on its own against the regime.

They lauded Kochneva’s kidnapping as an outstanding achievement.

The kidnappers, however, agreed to provide details about the abduction.

The group claims that the alleged Ukrainian interpreter was taken while on her way from Tartus to Damascus, adding that Kochnneva’s car was stopped at an FSA checkpoint.

Her European features, flawless Arabic and Ukrainian passport aroused their suspicions, they said, especially considering she was in an extremely sensitive location, which the FSA refused to disclose.

Due to her presence in the mostly pro-regime province of Latakia at the onset of anti-government uprisings there, Kochneva was swiftly abducted by the group after they contacted the FSA central operations room in Homs.

She was then transferred to a hiding place inside Homs, which lies under the sole control of the rebels.

Investigations by the Local Coordination Committees activist group revealed that Kochneva was a pro-Assad activist.

They say she has appeared several times on official Syrian media outlets justifying the regime’s military operations, and arguing that Syria is facing a Western conspiracy.

The group added that Kochneva had labeled the rebels as “mercenaries” in her media appearances.

Following her disappearance, Kochneva’s fate remained unknown with reports circulating about her possible kidnapping or death given the violent bombing of Homs that day.

The reports prompted the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors in Damascus to issue a press statement asking for help in discovering her fate or her whereabouts on humanitarian grounds.

The kidnappers have said the decision to release Kochneva’s photos was made to enlighten the public about her actual role in Syria, and to prove that she was a spy for the regime.

They said a search of her belongings and data in her telephone uncovered the presence of phone numbers of Syrian officers as well as text messages she exchanged with them.

These discoveries prompted the kidnappers to tighten security measures in order to protect Kochneva, they said, as well as to relocate her often to guarantee her safety.

They claimed to have information that the Syrian army might bomb the locations where she was being held in order to later accuse the FSA of killing her and turn international public opinion against the rebels.

“Our Islamic teachings oblige us to treat her very well, care about her well-being and her health conditions and honor her according to Prophet Mohammad, saying ‘I command you to treat women well,’” the group holding her explained.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 07, 2012, on page 8.

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