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Al-Qaeda-linked militants release journalist captured in Syria

Stephanie Nebehay, Lesley Wroughton, Missy Ryan, AFP

Islamic militants released US journalist Peter Theo Curtis on Sunday, less than a week after grisly footage emerged of the execution of James Foley.

US journalist Peter Theo Curtis was released on Sunday, after nearly two years of captivity in Syria. (Brian Snyder, Reuters)

A United States journalist taken hostage by al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria thanked those who supported him during his two years in captivity on Wednesday, saying he was “just overwhelmed with emotion”.

Peter Theo Curtis (45) was captured shortly before he crossed into Syria in October 2012 and was held by the al-Qaeda splinter group known as al-Nusra, according to his family.

Curtis made a brief statement to reporters outside his mother Nancy Curtis’s house in Cambridge, Massachusets, the morning after his return home.

“I had no idea when I was in prison ... that so much effort was being expended on my behalf,” he said. “Now having found out, I am just overwhelmed with emotion.”

Curtis, who arrived in Boston on Tuesday from Tel Aviv, after having been released to United Nations peacekeepers, said he was taken aback by the many total strangers who came up to him to welcome him back.

The freelance journalist and author was released on Sunday, less than a week after grisly footage emerged of the execution of another US hostage, journalist James Foley, by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – a separate group from the one that held Curtis.

Isis guilty of ‘war crimes’
Separately, the UN accused Isis insurgents on Wednesday of committing war crimes, including amputations and public executions – sometimes in the presence of children – and said it believed Damascus had used chlorine gas in combating its enemies.

The  Sunni militants, who are bringing weapons from Iraq, have changed the power balance in Syria, consolidating control over large areas and establishing order by imposing harsh sharia law, the UN said in its latest report.

“Executions in public spaces have become a common spectacle on Fridays in al Raqqa and Isis-controlled areas of Aleppo governorate [province],” the report said.

“Children have been present at the executions, which take the form of beheading or shooting in the head at close range ... Bodies are placed on public display – often on crucifixes – for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents.”

The independent investigators voiced deep concern about boys forced to join the ranks of Isis, who are being trained in camps in Syria that could be targeted by US airstrikes.

US President Barack Obama vowed “justice will be done” against the Isis killers of Foley on Tuesday, as the US sought to identify targets for potential airstrikes in Syria.

“We are aware ... of the presence of children in training camps, I think that this decision by the United States must respect the laws of war and we are concerned about the presence of these children,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairperson of the UN commission of inquiry, told a news briefing in Geneva.

“Isis poses a clear and present danger to civilians and particularly minorities under its control in Syria and in the region,” Pinheiro said.

Syrian government forces have dropped barrel bombs on civilian areas, a war crime under international law, including some believed to contain the poison gas chlorine in eight incidents in April, the investigators said in the latest report.

More than 191 000 killed
The conflict, which began with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, has become multifaceted with more groups involved and many front lines, said Muntarbhorn.

More than 191 000 people were killed in the first three years of the war, a UN report said last week.

“There has been also an increase in reports of enforced disappearances, sexual assaults in detention centres and the arrest of female relatives of wanted persons,” said Pinheiro.

Deaths in custody in Syrian jails are on the rise and forensic analysis of 26 948 photographs allegedly taken from 2011 to 2013 in government detention centres back its “longstanding findings of systematic torture and deaths of detainees”.

The UN report, the commission of inquiry’s eighth since being set up exactly three years ago, is based on 480 interviews and documentary evidence gathered by its team, which is trying to build a case for future criminal prosecution.

Islamic forces, which are also sweeping through neighbouring Iraq in their bid to establish a cross-border caliphate, have drawn more experienced and ideologically motivated foreign fighters and established control over large areas in northern and eastern Syria, particularly oil-rich Deir al-Zor, it said.

In the report, they reiterated their call for the UN Security Council to refer violations in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

US joint military action
Meanwhile, the US is intensifying its push to build an international campaign against Isis in Iraq and Syria, including recruiting partners for potential joint military action, Obama administration officials said on Wednesday.

“We are working with our partners and asking how they might be able to contribute. There are a range of ways to contribute: humanitarian, military, intelligence, diplomatic,” state department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.

It’s unclear how many nations will sign up. Some such as trusted ally Britain harbour bitter memories of joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” in the 2003 invasion of Iraq that included troops from 38 nations. Others such as France refused to join the action. The claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction which spurred the coalition to act were found to be false.

Senior White House aides met this week to discuss a strategy for expanding its assault on Isis, including the possibility of airstrikes on the militants’ stronghold in eastern Syria – an escalation that would almost certainly be riskier than the current US campaign in Iraq.

While Iraq’s government welcomed the role of US war planes to attack the militants, al-Assad has warned that any strikes conducted without its permission would be considered an act of aggression, potentially plunging any US-led coalition into a broader conflict with Syria. – Reuters, AFP

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