Monica Prieto (L), the wife of El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa (portrait-L) and Iraqi journalist Ghait Abdul-Ahad (R) look on during a press conference at the Samir Kassir Foundation offices in Beirut on December 10, 2013
Monica Prieto (L), the wife of El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa (portrait-L) and Iraqi journalist Ghait Abdul-Ahad (R) look on during a press conference at the Samir Kassir Foundation offices in Beirut on December 10, 2013 © - AFP
Monica Prieto (L), the wife of El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa (portrait-L) and Iraqi journalist Ghait Abdul-Ahad (R) look on during a press conference at the Samir Kassir Foundation offices in Beirut on December 10, 2013
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Serene Assir, AFP
Last updated: December 10, 2013

Al-Qaeda kidnappers silence journalist survivors of Syria bombs

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From Baba Amr to Aleppo, they braved countless army bombardments to tell the world about the suffering of Syrians, but two Spanish journalists have fallen prey to another danger: Al-Qaeda kidnappers.

Reporter Javier Espinosa and photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova have been held since September 16 by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to a statement released Tuesday by the Spanish journalists' families.

"Embedded" with rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, the journalists had been working in battered Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria on their last trip.

Espinosa has ventured into rebel areas of Syria a dozen times since the anti-Assad revolt broke out in 2011.

On his last trip, he was reporting for Spanish daily El Mundo, whose Middle East bureau he heads, on the dismal living conditions for children and the sick.

Freelancer Vilanova, who has had his photographs published widely by both press agencies and humanitarian organisations, had already been kidnapped once before by ISIL in war-battered Aleppo.

His photographs have shown not only battles but also the wounded seeking treatment in the northern city's Dar al-Shifa hospital, which has been destroyed by repeated government bombardment.

Despite the immense obstacles to covering Syria's conflict, the pair "have been dedicated to tell the story of the Syrian people amidst a devastating humanitarian crisis", their families said.

Espinosa's wife Monica Prieto, herself an award-winning reporter, said the pair wanted to tell "the world about the Syrians' suffering."

"They have done so because we believe the Syrian people need our work, and that we must live up to our responsibility," she said at a Tuesday press conference in Beirut.

Espinosa was one of the few journalists in Baba Amr, a district of Homs in central Syria, during the army's all-out assault in February 2012 when reporters Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed.

"Javier didn't only survive the bombardment of Baba Amr, which killed two of his colleagues right before his eyes. He even chose to stay in the neighbourhood until the last civilian was evacuated," Prieto said.

In addition to the violence, journalists have been increasingly targeted for kidnapping and abuses by jihadist fighters.

Last week, Iraqi cameraman Yasser Faisal al-Joumaili was executed in Idlib by ISIL while on the job.

Many Western media organisations have stopped sending journalists into the rebel-held north, with reporters instead relying on government permits and escorts to report in Syria.

And Syrian media activists have also been abducted by ISIL, often suffering horrific torture in detention.

News of Espinosa and Vilanova's kidnappings has sparked outrage from high-profile Syrian activists who saw them work across the country.

"Javier is more loved by Syrian activists than the foreign takfiris (extremists) and jihadis that kidnapped him, and this is one of the reasons they kidnapped him," said one activist who tweets under the handle 'The 47th'.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says ISIL "has been responsible for most of the mistreatment of civilians, including news providers."

Espinosa and Vilanova are believed to be detained in Raqa, an ISIL stronghold, where it has stamped out other non-jihadist armed groups.

'Syrians also have responsibility'

In an emotive appeal on Tuesday, a veiled Prieto called on the captors and all armed groups to "honour the revolution (the journalists) protected, and set them free."

She said the pair became "brothers with the Syrians in their fear, misery and humanitarian crisis," adding that "you, as Syrians, also have a responsibility towards all those Arabs and Westerners who have defended you."

The journalists' families and employers, she added, "have reached an impasse with the captors after many weeks of attempted mediation."

Espinosa is from Malaga and has lived in the Middle East for 12 years. His children were born and raised in the region and speak fluent Arabic.

He has won multiple international awards, including the prestigious Prix Bayeux for war correspondents.

Vilanova is from Barcelona and has won awards for his work covering the Arab Spring. He has also helped Syrian doctors secure much-needed medicine for victims of the conflict.

Reporters Without Borders calls Syria the world's most dangerous place for journalists, saying at least 110 journalists and media activists have been killed there since March 2011.

Another 60 journalists and media activists are currently kidnapped, missing or detained, including two dozen foreigners.

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