Spanish journalist kidnapped in Syria released

ALBERT AJI DIAA HADID Associated Press Published:

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A Spanish journalist kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria crossed the border into Turkey on Sunday, his newspaper reported, as activists said government airstrikes killed at least 13 people in a northwestern border town.

Veteran war correspondent Marc Marginedas was abducted on Sept. 4 near Hama by jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway al-Qaida group. He was "moved repeatedly" while in captivity and accused him of spying for the West before his release, his newspaper El Periodico said.

The newspaper did not elaborate on how Marginedas was released or whether a ransom was paid. It said he was undergoing medical tests in Turkey under the watch of Spanish state officials after speaking by telephone with his family in Barcelona and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

The Spanish federation of journalist associations said in a short statement that it was delighted with the news and hoped for a similar outcome with Spanish journalists Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, also currently held in Syria.

Syria, engulfed in a nearly three-yearlong civil war, has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, and the number of abductions has soared to an unprecedented level over the past year.

Many of the kidnappings go unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the abductions out of public view may help with negotiating the captives' release. The scale of the abductions -- more than 30 are believed to be currently held -- and the lack of response to individual mediation efforts have encouraged some families and employers to speak out.

The vast majority of the kidnappings over the past six months have occurred in opposition-held parts of northern and eastern Syria, where al-Qaida-linked rebel groups were once particularly strong.

Since December, a loose coalition of rebels has waged war against the militants of the Islamic State, who are widely despised for their heavy handedness.

Meanwhile, government airstrikes hit residential buildings in the town of Kfar Tarakhim in the northwest province of Idlib on Saturday afternoon, according to the Idlib News group and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have dropped bombs and fired missiles at opposition-held residential areas throughout the war.

The bombardment seems sometimes intended to push civilians out, allowing Syrian forces a freer hand to tackle rebels. Villages far from government troops are also sometimes hit, suggesting the government wants to punish them for supporting the opposition.

Syria's government also has blockaded opposition-held areas throughout the country, harshly punishing civilians for harboring rebels in their midst.

Over the past few weeks, some rebel-held areas have accepted what the government calls "national reconciliation" deals, whereby they surrender their weapons, or agree to truces, in exchange for allowing food to enter and people to leave.

On Sunday, the government organized a tour for journalists of one such area, the town of Moadamiyeh near Damascus, though they weren't allowed to enter.

At least 40 pickup trucks and vehicles crossed into the area, filled with returning families who fled the fighting. Residents registered their names at a military checkpoint before entering.

"I'm returning with my father and two sisters after nearly a year and a half of displacement," said Mariam Dawoud, 38. "I'm pleased to return home."

About 5,000 people were evacuated from Moadamiyeh in October by the Syrian Red Crescent after a series of shaky truces between rebels and government forces in August and October. A year's of blockade of the town caused widespread hunger and deaths from hunger-related illnesses among residents. Activists said they had lived on boiled grape leaves and raw olives.

In December, rebels raised the national flag used by Assad's government in a deal to end the blockade.

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Hadid reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.