Freed reporters tell of mock execution ordeal

Mock executions, hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, a makeshift chess game to pass the time... and a "surreal" snowball fight with their jailers. The French journalists taken hostage in Syria have been talking about their ordeal after being released at the weekend.

Freed reporters tell of mock execution ordeal
French President Francois Hollande (C) listens to Didier Francois (R) one of the freed French journalists, during a welcoming ceremony. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Details are starting to trickle through of the ordeal experienced by the four French journalists who returned home Sunday after being held hostage for 10 months at the hands of the most radical of Syria's jihadist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But the journalists were reluctant to give too much away for fear of jeopardising the safety of those who remain in captivity in the war-torn country, including US journalist James Foley, a freelancer who had been working for Agence France-Presse and other media when he went missing in November 2012.

According to Didier Francois, 53, an experienced and highly respected war reporter for Europe 1 radio who was kidnapped on June 6 north of Aleppo along with 23-year-old photographer Edouard Elias, the first few days were particularly tough.

"They put you in the mood straight away. The pressure is very, very, very strong. Four days without eating or drinking. On the fourth day without drinking, you start feeling really awful, handcuffed to a radiator and being beaten," he told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

"It's… to break any will to resist."

Francois and Elias were stopped by armed and masked men after they crossed the border into Syria from Turkey.

"A Kalashnikov to the head, handcuffed in the back… In English, they told us 'Don't worry, we will check everything, this can be settled in one hour'… Typical," Francois said.

Then "we find ourselves in t-shirts, without belts or shoes, without ourphones, with nothing. And with something on the head."

'World centre of torture' 

Nicolas Henin, 37, was captured several weeks later in Raqqa in the north – as was Pierre Torres, a 29-year-old photographer.

The four were held together after having initially been detained separately, and appeared thin when they were welcomed home Sunday in an emotional reunion with their loved ones at an air base near Paris.

Henin said in an interview with Arte television late Sunday that hunger had been tough to endure, as was the cold.

"There was also a little physical abuse, but that's what all Syrian prisoners endure," he said.

"Syria has always been a big world centre of torture."

Francois said his jailers staged mock executions several times, placing guns on his temple or forehead.

But the journalists refused to reveal more on any further physical violence they may have been subjected to.

For his part, Henin attempted to escape on his third day of captivity, and managed to run for 10 or so kilometres (six or so miles) at night before being caught by his abductors.

Jailers announced Mandela death

The journalists were regularly moved around, and Henin counted around 10 different locations, in war zones and sometimes near the frontline.

To pass the time, Elias and Francois made a makeshift game of chess on a box of cheese, with nail clippers and a pen they kept hidden in the jacket and socks of the photographer.

The two also gave each other photography and scuba diving "lessons", and tried to remember key dates in French history.

Contact with their jailers varied between "difficult phases" and "phases of total relaxation", said Francois.

They knew next-to-nothing about what was happening in the outside world, apart from the death of Nelson Mandela which their jailers announced.

He also described a "surreal moment" when the guards entered their cell pretending to bring food and instead, "they had brought snow and they had a snowball fight with us."

The four were eventually brought by car to the border with Turkey, which they crossed on foot, and were picked up by Turkish soldiers on the other side overnight Friday to Saturday.

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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.