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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Freed Captives Differ on Claim Syrian Rebels Framed Assad With Gas Attack

The Italian war correspondent Domenico Quirico, who reported sympathetically on the uprising in Syria before being taken hostage in April by rebel fighters, told reporters on Monday following his release that two years of bloody, armed conflict had changed the nature of the rebellion. “I was a hostage in Syria, betrayed by the revolution that no longer exists and has become fanaticism and the work of bandits,” he said.

The veteran reporter added, “It is not the revolution that I encountered two years ago in Aleppo â€" secular, tolerant. It has become something else,” in remarks published by his newspaper, the Turin daily La Stampa.

La Stampa also published video of Mr. Quirico’s emotional return to his newsroom and an English translation of his statement taking issue with part of an account given by a fellow captive, the Belgian academic Pierre Piccinin. As the Belgian newspaper Le Soir reported, Mr. Piccinin said in a television interview on Monday, after he too returned home, that “it was not the government of Bashar al-Assad that used sarin or some other gas during combat in the Damascus suburbs” last month.

According to the Belgian â€" who described himself as a previously “fierce supporter of the Free Syrian Army in their just struggle for democracy” â€" at one stage during their captivity, he and Mr. Quirico overheard rebels saying that the deadly gas attacks last month had been carried out by anti-Assad forces to frame the government and provoke intervention.

Mr. Quirico confirmed the incident but disagreed sharply with Mr. Piccinin on what it meant. “We heard some people we didn’t know talking through a half-closed door,” he said. “It’s impossible to know whether what was said was based on real fact or just hearsay.”

According to La Stampa, the Italian reporter called it “madness” to say that the overheard conversation was definitive proof of a rebel plot.

“During our kidnapping, we were kept completely in the dark about what was going on in Syria, including the gas attacks in Damascus,” Quirico said. “But one day, we heard a Skype conversation in English between three people whose names I do not know. We heard the conversation from the room in which we were being held captive, through a half-closed door. One of them had previously presented himself to us as a general of the Syrian Liberation Army. The other two we had never seen and knew nothing about.”

“During the Skype conversation, they said that the gas attack on the two neighborhoods in Damascus had been carried out by rebels as a provocation, to push the West towards a military intervention. They also said they believed the death toll had been exaggerated,” Quirico said in his statement.

“I don’t know if any of this is true and I cannot say for sure that it is true because I have no means of confirming the truth of what was said. I don’t know how reliable this information is and cannot confirm the identity of these people. I am in no position to say for sure whether this conversation is based on real fact or just hearsay and I don’t usually call conversations I have heard through a door, true,” Quirico said.

“You must bear in mind the conditions in which we were; we were prisoners and heard things through doors. I have nothing to judge whether the things that were said are true or not. I am used to checking my facts before I speak and confirm something as true. In this case I was unable to check anything. It is madness to say I knew it wasn’t Assad who used gas.”