5 Aug 2012

Journalists captured by ‘British’ militants in Syria

As fighting rages in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a photojournalist tells Channel 4 News Britons were among those who kidnapped him and a Dutch reporter.

John Cantlie and his Dutch colleague Joreon Oerlemans were held in captivity for a week by Islamist militants. The pair were shot and wounded during an escape attempt.

Speaking to Channel 4 News, John Cantlie said: “The larger part of the group was made up of younger jihadists.

“They made a big deal of the fact we were journalists, initially they said that once they had verified who we were , that we weren’t MI6 or CIA spies, they would let us on our way, but very quickly it became clear that wasn’t going to be the case.

“They were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the UK and Chechnya. A real mix.

“One of the big surprises of this was that a relatively large number of these jihadists were either English speaking or English.

“Their attitude was they were united under the Islamic flag, the wish to follow Sharia law, that they had come to Syria to fight the Assad regime, that Assad himself wasn’t a true Muslim, but after that it was about imposing Sharia law on the Syrian people.”

The Foreign Office is investigating his claims.

Mr Cantlie and Mr Oerlemans, were both wounded in a “shooting gallery” as their captors fired on the men when they tried to escpae.

“I was shot through the arm, Jereon was shot through the hip, we were both incredibly lucky, no bones were hit, no arteries, it felt like 200 bullets coming down on us like hail.”

The Free Syrian Army group, which is part of the opposition trying to oust Bashar al-Assad, eventually helped them to escape.

Fighting rages in Syrian city of Aleppo (Getty)

‘Violence in Aleppo’

Fighting in Aleppo has been unrelenting as rebels were battered by the onslaught they had expected in Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

“There is one helicopter and we’re hearing two explosions every minute,” said a witness in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub.

Syrian forces struck at Aleppo’s Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5 million people that has become the frontline of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people.

A local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a “strong offensive” by government forces on the city.

In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital as troops kept up an offensive they began on Friday to storm the last rebel bastion there, a resident said.

Both cities – vital prizes in the battle for Syria – had been relatively free from violence during the 17-month uprising but fighting flared in Damascus after a 18 July bombing which killed four of Assad’s inner circle.