(ANSAmed) - BEIRUT - Al-Qaeda in Syria on Wednesday claimed responsibility for the January 3 kidnapping of five Doctors Without Borders members in the northern part of the country.
The abducted staffers reportedly include one Peruvian, one Danish, one Swedish and one Swiss national, as well as a 30-year-old Belgian nurse. In an Arab-language communique whose authenticity has not yet been verified, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) said it has ''shut down Yamdiya and Birnas field hospitals'' and ''arrested European doctors who were spying on jihadist combatants''. The field hospitals were located in the Idlib and Latakia districts.
Syrian rebels on Wednesday seized al-Qaeda headquarters in the Syrian city of Aleppo after fighting resumed earlier in the day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights made known. The headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliate, were in a former pediatric hospital in the eastern Qadi Askar district. The fate of hundreds of ISIS militias is unknown. Hundreds of Syrian prisoners held in the ex hospital have been freed, local journalists from the Aleppo Information Center reported. These reports have not yet been independently verified. Clashes also took place Wednesday in Dana, in Idlib province, and near the northern city of Raqqa, while the Syrian air force targeted the small, rebel-held northern city of Tal Rifaat in Aleppo province, eyewitnesses told ANSAmed.
Two Swedish journalists abducted in Syria at the end of November have also been freed and returned to Swedish authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told ANSA on Wednesday. The ICRC accompanied one of the two journalists from the Lebanese village of Arsal near the Syria border, delivering him to the Swedish embassy in Beirut, spokesperson Claire Kaplun said. The other journalist was freed on Saturday. While their identities have not been released officially, they are reportedly freelancer Manugs Falkehed and photographer Niklas Hammarstrom. They had entered Syria illegally from the predominantly Sunni Muslim village of Arsal, which supports the Syrian rebels, to cover the fighting in the Qalamoun region. They had disappeared on the way back.
A series of high-level diplomatic meetings on Syria are set to take place January 11-14 in Beirut, Paris and Moscow ahead of an international peace conference to be held January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The 11-member Friends of Syria group of countries, which includes Italy and which at least formally supports the Syrian opposition, meets in the French capital January 11 and 12. US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on January 13, London-based pan-Arab daily al Hayat reported. Russia has been the main international ally of the ruling Assad family in Syria for decades. Also on January 13, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif is expected in Beirut for his first official visit. Another staunch ally of the Assad regime, Iran sponsors the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, which has sent militia into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad. On that day, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba arrives in Moscow with a Syrian National Coalition (SNC) delegation for the first meeting between Russia and the Syrian opposition, to be held on January 14. The SNC will decide whether or not to participate in the Montreux conference by the 17th, al Hayat reported.
The Christians of Syria hope the Geneva II international conference ''will be a harbinger of democracy, freedom and equality'', Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo told Vatican news agency Fides on Wednesday. The Christian community in Syria opposes any attempt to turn their homeland into an Islamist country under Sharia or Muslim law, which would reduce Christians to ''protected minority'' status, said the archbishop, who is responsible for the eparchy of Hassakè-Nisibi. ''Christians will be glad if the so-called revolution paves the way for freedom and democracy. But now even opposition groups linked to the Free Syrian Army - which present themselves as moderates with respect to the jihadists - have rallied under an Islamist banner. They are saying sharia law must rule in the new Syria, because that is what the majority wants. Christians cannot accept this'', the archbishop explained. ''The US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are in favor, or tacitly accept, letting what happened in Egypt also take place in Syria. And we saw how that ended'', he added, pointing out that many Syrian Islamists share Muslim Brotherhood positions. ''Christians in Syria have always been an integral part of the common homeland, citizens with full rights and not a so-called minority'', he went on. ''After the end of the French protectorate, Syrians chose a secular and democratic system. This was before the regime imposed by the Baath party''. The archbishop also addressed those who attempt to scapegoat Christians as alleged Assad supporters. ''At the beginning, people demonstrating against the government called for freedom, democracy, and an end to corruption. Then our revolution was railroaded from abroad. The Syrian people do not want barbarism and tyranny under the guise of religion. It is human to choose the lesser of two evils''. (ANSAmed).