French photographer tells of Syria kidnap

A French photographer who spent 81 days in captivity in war-torn Syria at the hands of an armed Islamist group, has told of his kidnap ordeal a week after his release, recalling mock executions and scenes of torture.

French photographer tells of Syria kidnap
Jonathan Alpeyrie. Screengrab: YouTube

In a detailed account of his ordeal to weekly Paris Match, 34-year-old French photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie — who returned to France last week after being released — spoke of the 81 days he spent in captivity before being freed by a pro-Assad official. 

"I was betrayed by my fixer (local translators who help journalists in foreign countries), who sold me out," he said, remembering the moment on April 29th when masked men stopped his vehicle on the road to Rankos, north of Damascus.

"They pushed me to my knees and pretended to execute me with several gun shots. Then they gagged and handcuffed me."

He was taken to a house along with the fixer, who was later freed by another group of "bearded" men.

Alpeyrie, who works for the New York-based Polaris Images agency and had been in Syria for ten days when he was kidnapped, spent three weeks tied to a bed as bombings raged around him.

Reporters Without Borders describes Syria as "one of the world's most dangerous countries for media personnel", with at least 24 journalists killed and 15 foreign reporters having disappeared or been abducted since the start of the conflict in March 2011.

Alpeyrie eventually met the chief of the clan holding him captive — "Assad, an Islamist", whose group "Katiba al-Islam" controls Rankos.

"One day, they simulated the act of cutting my throat", he said.

Eventually he was moved to another house in the countryside, where he spent the first week chained to a window before being allowed to move more freely.

"As the weeks went by, the bombings were becoming more intense. You could feel that the (regime) soldiers were getting nearer. We were attacked by MiGs (Russian fighter planes). The bombs were falling just 50 metres (164 feet) away," he said.

Alpeyrie told the weekly magazine that he also witnessed the torture of four Christian Shabihas (pro-Assad militia) who had been captured.

"They were setting dogs on them, they hit them with their belts. I heard their screams, it was horrible. It lasted a week."

The photographer also recalled lighter moments with his captors, including teaching Assad to swim in a nearby pool.

"In the water, he started to panic. I held him like a baby," he said.

Then on July 18th, a "sheik" told him he was going to be freed. He was driven to Yabroud, north of Damascus, to the man's flat.

"Two men arrived… One of them spoke perfect English. He told me: 'Jonathan, you are now free. We are from the government and you're going to Damascus'.

"I collapsed. I could picture myself ending up in a government prison."

He was driven to a house in Damascus where he says he met the "businessman" who paid a "ransom" to the rebels.

According to Alpeyrie, the man is on a black list of Syrian dignitaries drawn up by the West and paid $450,000 (€340,000) for his release.

Alpeyrie was driven to neighbouring Lebanon, from where he eventually flew to Paris.

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French group to open two hotels in Damascus

France's Louvre Hotels Group has signed an agreement to open two hotels under its own name in Damascus, the first with a western hotel operator since Syria's brutal civil war began in 2011.

French group to open two hotels in Damascus
Louvre owns the Golden Tulip five-star brand. Photo: Louvre Hotels Group
The confirmation of the two hotels opening, after recent media reports, came a day after the UN announced an internal investigation into the bombing of hospitals in Syria, and as at least six civilians were killed by the Syrian regime and Russian fire in northwestern Idlib province in the past days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The hotels “will open soon under the brand name of Louvres Hotels Group,” the company, which is owned by China's Jin
Jiang, said in a statement.
Louvre Hotels Group said the deal was signed between Syria's Nazha Investment Group and “a partner with whom Louvre Hotels cooperates in the Middle East”.
The exact number of people killed in Syria's war is unknown but hundreds of thousands have died.
Several dozen medical facilities with links to the UN have been damaged or destroyed by bombs this year. Russian has denied deliberately targeting civilian installations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday said an internal inquiry would look into the bombing of hospitals in Syria which had previously flagged their coordinates to avoid air strikes.
“The deal is strictly in line with international law and all international directives regarding Syria,” the French company statement said.
According to the website, The Syria Report, it is the first agreement with a western hotel operator since 2011, when the devastating conflict began. Louvre Hotels Group was taken over by China's Jin Jiang in 2015 and it operates more than 1,500 hotels in 54 countries.