Monday 24 October 2016

Emotional return home for Spanish journalists freed from Syria captivity

Published 08/05/2016 | 09:51

Freed Spanish journalists Antonio Pampliega, background, Jose Manuel Lopez and Angel Sastre, right, arrive at the Torrejon military airbase in Madrid, Spain (Pool Moncloa via AP)
Freed Spanish journalists Antonio Pampliega, background, Jose Manuel Lopez and Angel Sastre, right, arrive at the Torrejon military airbase in Madrid, Spain (Pool Moncloa via AP)
A mini-bus leads a convoy of vehicles believed to be carrying the three freed Spanish journalists (AP)

Three Spanish freelance journalists held captive in Syria for nearly 10 months returned home on Sunday, tearfully hugging relatives as they got off a military jet sent to Turkey to bring them back.

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Antonio Pampliega, Jose Manuel Lopez and Angel Sastre shook hands with Acting Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria on the tarmac of the Torrejon de Ardoz air force base on the outskirts of Madrid. They then smiled and cried as relatives ran to hug them.

Images on Spain's state-owned TVE television channel showed their arrival but reporters were kept outside the base and away from the three journalists, only catching sight of a dark blue van carrying them from the base.

Spain's prime minister Mariano Rajoy posted a photograph of the journalists descending from the aircraft with a caption saying "Welcome!" on his official Twitter account.

"Allied and friendly" countries had assisted in ensuring the journalists' release, his office said in a statement late on Saturday.

It highlighted Turkey and Qatar, saying they had helped out "especially in the final phase" of the journalists' liberation.

It provided no information on the captors and how they were convinced to give up the journalists.

The three journalists went missing on July 12, near the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. At the time, the region was under the control of al-Qaida's branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the journalists left Turkey from the southeastern city of Hatay after their release.

"This adventure has ended happily," Mr Garcia-Margallo said.

TVE said in its afternoon news broadcast that the journalists, after arriving at the base, went to a Madrid cafeteria with friends and relatives, where they received a phone call from King Felipe VI. They told journalists that they did not know where they had been held in Syria.

The broadcaster said Mr Lopez explained that the three had been incarcerated together for the first three months, after which Mr Pampliega was taken away and not seen again until just before the flight home.

Mr Pampliega's mother, Maria del Mar Rodriguez, told the Reporters Without Borders organisation that it was "marvellous" to speak with her son.

"He had the same voice he's always had, since he was a boy, and he continually asked my forgiveness for what he'd put me through," she said. "I'm going to prepare him a plate of spinach in bechamel sauce, his favourite dish."

Spain's political leaders, campaigning for a general election on June 26, expressed relief and joy at the captives' release.

"I join in with the happiness felt by their families, colleagues and friends," Mr Rajoy said in another tweet.

The journalists, who provided reports to various media outlets, went to Syria to report on the war that started in 2011.

All three had worked in Syria previously and knew what precautions to take before entering the country, said Elsa Gonzalez, president of Spain's federation of journalists.

Three other Spanish journalists were released in March 2014 after being held hostage by Syrian extremists for months.

The Spanish government has never given details of how it secured their release.

Press Association

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