Rome

Syria hostage ordeal over for reporter Quirico

'Held by three groups, only treated well by al-Qaeda'

Syria hostage ordeal over for reporter Quirico

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, September 9 - Veteran La Stampa war correspondent Domenico Quirico celebrated his first day of freedom Monday after five months of often-brutal captivity in Syria along with Belgian academic Pierre Piccinin. Quirico told Rome prosecutors he had feared for his life, especially at the start. Quirico, 61, told the prosecutors, who are obliged to treat the case as a criminal one under Italian law, that he and Belgian academic Pierre Piccinin were stopped in April by armed men on two pick-up trucks. "We were blindfolded for the first few days: I was afraid I would be killed," he said. Quirico said he thought he and Piccinin were held captive by three rebel groups, alternately. He confirmed that he was subjected to two mock executions after two failed escape bids. He said he never saw his captors' faces. Quirico said the pair were sold by the Syrian Free Army. "We were beaten daily and - I am duty-bound to say this - were only treated well by an al-Qaeda group". Quirico landed in Rome early on Monday. He disappeared in Syria on April 9. The reporter landed at Rome's Ciampino airport soon after midnight and appeared tired but in good health. ''I have lived the past five months as if I were on Mars,'' he told reporters who welcomed him at the airport together with Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. ''They did not treat me well and I was scared', he said of his abductors. 'The revolution betrayed me'. Quirico's wife and two daughters said "thank heaven Domenico is back...it's been a nightmare. You can tell he went through a lot, just look how thin he is, almost emaciated...but we're so glad he's in relatively good shape". Quirico told prosecutors he had lost four kg during his time in the rebels' hands. Italian government sources first revealed on Sunday night that the reporter had been released and was already on board a plane taking him back to Italy. The news came after two weeks of fear mixed with hope for good news. La Stampa editor-in-chief Mario Calabresi welcomed the news as 'wonderful', confirming he had been informed directly by Premier Enrico Letta, by the foreign minister and by Quirico's family, his wife and daughters Metella and Eleonora, who last June launched a moving appeal for their father's release. ''We are excited and happy..we can't wait to hug him,'' Eleonora Quirico told ANSA. Quirico entered Syria from Lebanon on April 6 saying he would be out of touch for a few days. On April 9 he made his last phone call before going missing. On June 6 he made a brief call to his wife Giulietta from where he was held captive, leading to hopes his release was imminent. Concern was high lately due to possible US-led military intervention in Syria after allegations of chemical-weapons use by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Piccinin, a Belgian national abducted with Quirico, also landed in Rome with the reporter before returning to Belgium. He said he had overheard rebels talking about using chemical weapons, and not their being used by the Syrian regime, but Quirico dismissed this report, saying "we were in the dark about everything". ''Hope never left us,'' said Premier Letta while the presidential palace praised in a statement the foreign ministry and intelligence services. The ordeal for Quirico, a veteran reporter who was already briefly abducted in 2011 in Libya with three Italian colleagues, started in April as he was trying to reach Homs, a key city in the anti-Assad uprising. He was travelling from the Lebanese border in his fourth trip to Syria to report on the civil war. He made his last call on April 9 before disappearing. His family and newspaper kept quiet for over 20 days at the recommendation of authorities so that possible contacts with his abductors were not jeopardized. But on the 30th of that month, given the void of information on the reporter's fate, the newspaper made the news public. The initial silence surrounding the abduction led many to fear for the reporter's life but his family, newspaper and authorities never gave up hope, especially after his wife spoke to him in June. In the past few weeks Bonino had been ''cautiously confident'', a sentiment she did not express in the case of another Italian abducted in Syria, Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was reported missing in the war-torn country in July. ''I remained not just determined but confident because bad reports emerge immediately on that side of the world,'' she said at the end of August. Copasir - Italy's parliamentary committee on intelligence and security - had been recently briefed by the director of DIS - the Department for Information and Security - Giampiero Massolo, who said the reporter was believed to be in the hands of an ordinary criminal gang and that negotiations were ongoing. Negotiations for Quirico's release reportedly benefited from the good relations established by Italian diplomats and intelligence officials with Syrian insurgents. Moreover, the reporter was reportedly not in the hands of jihadist rebels after a certain point. No ransom was paid for his release, according to initial reports. Bonino told broadcaster Sky-Tg24 this is no time for details. ''There will be time,'' she assured.

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