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Western aid workers in Syria face anxiety over kidnappings

18 October 2013

THE release on Monday of three of the six members of a Red Cross team kidnapped in northern Syria the previous day has failed to lessen the anxiety felt by aid workers and others trying to ease the suffering of Syrians. The three freed Red Cross workers and a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer were found "safe and sound" near the Syrian border. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not released the names or nationalities of any of its staff involved in the kidnapping incident. Nor is there word on the fate of the missing three Red Cross workers.

While no group has said it carried out the abduction, the Syrian government was quick to blame "an armed terrorist group". The likelihood is that the kidnappers are affiliated with elements of the armed opposition, probably one of the Islamist militias that control much of the territory in northern Syria. This, in turn, has led to speculation that the three Red Cross employees still being held are from Western countries. The head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, Magne Barth, said only that the Red Cross expected "that all armed groups, all authorities, respect independence".

The lack of information on the kidnappers of the ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent personnel mirrors the uncertainty over the fate of other hostages in Syria, including three churchmen. The latest indications are that Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit who went missing last August (News, 2 August), is still alive and being held by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; but there is no confirmation of this. Even less is known of the fates of the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi, who were seized last April (News, 3 May).

On the broader Syrian front, the prospects for a negotiated end to the crisis seem as distant as ever. Even though the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is making progress in dismantling the country's chemicals arsenal, hopes that key parties to the conflict will agree to meet in Geneva later this year appear to be fading. As powerful Islamist militia groups reject a negotiated settlement, the largest group in the opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has said that it will boycott any Geneva meeting.

The leader of the SNC, George Sabra, said that it would be impossible to sit down with the Syrian government while the latter's forces were besieging civilian areas and not allowing relief supplies to enter. He accused world leaders of being side-tracked by the chemical weapons issue: "The international community has focused on the murder weapons, the chemical weapons, and left the murderer unpunished and forgotten the victims."

Syrian state television on Tuesday showed President Bashar al-Assad taking part in prayers to mark Eid al-Adha, the festival to mark the end of the annual Islamic pilgrimage, at a mosque in Damascus. A government-owned newspaper, Tishrin, expressed the hope that this sacred occasion would enable Syria "in the near future to recover its full health and bandage its wounds, so that everyone can resume being the closest of brothers". But there was no sign that these sentiments were bearing fruit: Tuesday witnessed yet more rebel and government attacks, indicating that another Islamic feast-day was passing without the remaining civilianpopulation enjoying even a respite fromthe violence.

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