Middle East

Chaos turns Syria into paradise for kidnappers

Members of the Free Syrian Army are seen with weapons, which activists say were taken from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al Assad, after clashes in Saida near Deraa September 18, 2012. Picture taken September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

BEIRUT: Every time violence intensifies in Syria, so do abductions of civilians, for political reasons and more often for financial gain, activists and families of hostages say.

The plight of hundreds of people abducted over the past 18 months of conflict has prompted a group of activists to set up a Facebook page entitled "Missing" where pictures of men, women and children are posted by anxious relatives.

"Our sister, Taghrid Arnus, is missing, please call this number," reads one of the messages posted on the Internet site.

"If you have any information on any of the missing, please send a message to this page," says another message.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights between 2,000 and 3,000 people have been kidnapped across Syria since March 2011.

"Everyone is kidnapping everybody else," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in a telephone interview.

"Pro and anti-regime forces kidnap each other, to exchange prisoners or demand money, while there's also bands of criminals who just want to extort the families of the victims for ransom," he says.

"Life has become very cheap in Syria."

Abu Ahmad, 66, was kidnapped one night in mid-August while he was on his way home from work in Damascus.

"He has a good job," his son Ahmad told AFP. "That's why they went after him.

"We received a phone call. A man from the Popular Committees demanded $75,000 for baba," said Ahmad, referring to pro-regime militias that have been created to defend districts against rebels.

"I told him I wouldn't be able to pay up. We are lucky he got out alive."

Ahmad said his father was not beaten by his kidnappers, "but he heard them rape a girl held in the next room. They kept my father for nine days.

"In the end, they let him out for $15,000. They just wanted any money they could get their hands on," said Ahmad, adding that his father was traumatised by the experience.

Thousands of others haven't been so fortunate, and remain missing.

Some hostages are allegedly held in captivity by a man known as Abu Ibrahim who hails from from the town of Aazaz in the northern province of Aleppo.

According to activists, Abu Ibrahim shot to notoriety in mid-summer when his group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims.

"Abu Ibrahim is not a fighter, he is a criminal using the revolt to make money," an Aazaz resident who identified himself as Abu Mohammed told AFP via Skype. "He is holding many Syrian hostages."

Hundreds of Syrians were captured earlier this year when the army's onslaught on the flashpoint central city of Homs came to a head.

Activists have also reported a sharp increase in kidnappings in Yarmuk, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus which has seen intense shelling and clashes last week, and across villages in the northern province of Aleppo.

At the weekend, the Facebook page "Missing" carried a message reporting the disappearance of Ahmed Mohammed al-Majdalawi, a resident of Yarmuk.

"Oh no, my friend, may God bring you back in full health," read a comment posted by one of Majdalawi's friends.

Four days later a camp resident old AFP that Majdalawi had been found dead among a pile of corpses in Yarmuk, while activists say he had been summarily executed.

In the Aleppo countryside, where entire towns and villages have fallen into rebel hands, there has been an increase in tit-for-tat kidnappings -- not only for money, but also for ammunition, residents say.

Residents of the mostly Shiite of Zahraa and Nabul claim that more than 100 of their relatives were abducted by rebels, who demanded 1,500 bullets in exchange for the safe return of each of their loved ones.

A journalist in Aleppo told AFP by telephone that pro-regime residents of the two villages have take up arms to protect themselves from the rebels.

Activists say the climate of chaos that has gripped Syria over the past 18 months has enabled all sides of the conflict to profit from the situation, whether their goals are political or merely financial.

"Part of the regime's strategy has been to create a security vacuum, but this vacuum has taken on a life of its own," said the Observatory's Abdel Rahman.

Activists say the northern city of Aleppo, at a centre of a tug-of-war between rebels and the army since July, has also been consumed in recent weeks by a wave of kidnappings.

"Most of the time, it's the same gangs who were responsible for crimes before the revolution began, who are behind the kidnappings now," an Aleppo-based activist who identified himself as Abu Hisham told AFP via Skype.

According to Abu Hisham, some thieves pose as rebels, some rebels act like criminals, and armed supporters of the regime take the law into their own hands.

"Because of this madness, people are afraid of everything," he said.

"And civilians pay the heaviest price. They're afraid of shelling, of being killed, of being detained, and now of being kidnapped."





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