Turkish journalists released in Syria as shadowy group claims deadly bombings
Two Turkish journalists who were held in Syria for two months before being freed thanks to Iranian mediation arrived in Tehran on Saturday, the Anatolia news agency reported.
Reporter Adem Ozkose and cameraman Hamit Coskun were flown to Tehran from Damascus, and the two men told Anatolia they were in good health and were about to meet relatives in the Iranian capital.
They will fly home to Turkey in the evening or on Sunday at the latest on a plane chartered by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the agency said.
The journalists had last been seen on March 9 near the rebel stronghold of Idlib, in northwest Syria, close to the Turkish border, where they were filming a documentary on the bloody crackdown on dissent.
Anatolia, quoting local Syrian sources and witnesses, said the two men were arrested by a pro-government militia and then handed over to Syrian intelligence.
Earlier on Saturday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that the journalists were released journalists following mediation by Iran.
Coskun, a cameraman, and reporter Ozkose of the newspaper Milat entered Syria in early March to film a documentary on the bloody crackdown on dissent in the country.
They were last seen on March 9 near the rebel stronghold of Idlib, in the northwest near the border with Turkey.
Group claims suicide bombing
Meanwhile, a video posted online in the name of a shadowy militant group is claiming responsibility for twin suicide bombings in the Syrian capital this week that killed 55 people.
In the video posted late Friday, a group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front says the bombing was in response to attacks on residential areas by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“We fulfilled our promise to respond with strikes with explosions,” a distorted voice says.
The video’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The Al-Nusra Front has claimed past bombings in Syria through posts on militant websites. Little is known about the group.
However Thursday’s bombing in Damascus raised fears that al-Qaeda-linked extremists are joining the anti-Assad fight.
The presence of al-Qaeda militants and other extremists adds a wild card element to the Syria conflict that could further hamper international efforts to end it. While world powers and U.N. observers in Syria can pressure the government and the opposition to stick to special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, they have no means of influencing shadowy Islamic militants who often don’t claim their own attacks.
Western officials say there is little doubt that al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists have made inroads in Syria since the popular uprising against President Bashar Assad began 14 months ago. But much remains unclear about their numbers, influence and activities inside Syria.
“We do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al-Qaeda presence in Syria, but frankly we don’t have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Panetta said he didn’t know whether al-Qaeda was connected to the latest bombings in Damascus.
In February, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Muslims in neighboring countries to join the uprising, saying Syria’s rebels must not rely on the West.
Syria’s uprising started in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests inspired by successful revolts elsewhere calling for political reform. The Syrian government responded with a brutal crackdown, prompting many in the opposition to take up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed. Hundreds more have died since.
Thursday’s twin blasts in Damascus were the fifth in a string of major attacks in Syrian cities that have clouded the picture of a fight between the opposition and the regime. It was the deadliest yet, in part because it happened on a key thoroughfare during rush hour, while previous bombings were on weekends.