Syria families demand regime action to free IS hostages

Syria families demand regime action to free IS hostages
Syrian refugees ride a truck carrying their personal belongings at a Lebanese army checkpoint in Wadi Hmeid in the Bekaa valley, after leaving the village of Arsal to return to their homes in Syria's Qalamoun region on July 23, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / -

Beirut: The families of Druze hostages held by the Islamic State group rallied for a third day Friday to demand action by the Syrian government to free them, witnesses said.

The jihadists abducted around 30 people — mostly women and children — from the southwestern province of Sweida in late July during the deadliest attack on Syria’s Druze community of the seven-year civil war.

On Friday, a handful of people gathered for a sit-in at the government’s provincial headquarters in Sweida, a reporter in the city told AFP.

The protests began on Wednesday, a day after families learned that IS had executed a 25-year-old female captive, Nour Radwan, the head of news website Sweida24, told AFP.

They began protesting to “demand that the government intervene immediately to free the hostages”, he said.

A protester, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was not related to the Druze hostages but had joined the sit-in to show support.

“Those who are related to them are always here, and there are large numbers that come in solidarity,” he told AFP, though adding that the numbers were lower on Friday.

“We’re demanding the return of the hostages. That’s not a tall order,” he said.

Negotiations between the government’s Russian ally and the jihadists for the release of the Druze captives had stalled, but Radwan said they resumed on the first day of the sit-in.

Footage of the protest on Thursday published online by Sweida24 showed a few dozen men and women in front of the provincial headquarters.

They gathered on the building’s front steps around neatly lined up photographs of the missing, and a sign that said: “We demand the hostages be returned alive.”

– IS demands $1 mn ransoms –
Government forces have battled IS in the volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa in the east of the province since the July attack.

Radwan said the jihadists had demanded $1 million in ransom for each of the 27 hostages, as well as an end to the government’s offensive against them in Tulul al-Safa and the release of 48 wives of IS fighters from government custody.

In the July 25 attack, IS killed more than 250 people, most of them civilians, in a wave of suicide bombings, shootings and stabbings across Sweida province.

They kidnapped around 30 people — mostly women and children — at the same time.

In August, IS executed a 19-year-old male student among the captives.

A 65-year-old Syrian woman among the hostages also died, with her IS captors telling negotiators she had died of an illness.

IS swept across large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” in territory it controlled.

But its self-declared state has since crumbled, and in Syria the jihadists have seen their presence dwindle to parts of the vast desert that stretches from the capital to the Iraqi border and a small pocket in the Euphrates valley.

US-backed Kurdish-led forces are battling to expel the jihadists from that pocket around the town of Hajin in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.