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11 Dec, 2013 11:56

Gunmen abduct Syrian human rights lawyer in opposition territory

Gunmen abduct Syrian human rights lawyer in opposition territory

A Syrian human rights lawyer has been kidnapped by gunmen in the latest in a wave of abductions in Syria. Razan Zaitouneh, an outspoken critic of the Assad regime, had reportedly been receiving threats from extremists prior to the attack.

The activist was abducted along with her husband and two other colleagues in the town of Douma close to Damascus. No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the kidnapping, but Zaitouneh had been receiving threatening messages from extremist elements in the run up to the incident.

The Local Coordination Committee – a nationwide organization of opposition activists that controls Douma – issued a statement decrying the kidnapping. Calling the abductions a “treacherous and cowardly act,” they laid the blame at the feet of the Assad government.

Zaitouneh has been a vocal critic of the regime of embattled President Bashar Assad, as well as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants operating in Syria. The 36-year-old human rights lawyer went into hiding at the onset of the civil war in Syria in March 2011. At the beginning of December, Zaitouneh published an article on a Lebanese website, condemning the opposition group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, for 90 percent of the abductions that have occurred in rebel-dominated areas of Syria.

The kidnapping of the anti-war activists follows a string of abductions by extremists in Syria, just a month before the beginning of international talks pushing for a ceasefire and an end to the civil war that has raged for over two years.

The last high-profile abduction occurred in the flashpoint Christian town of Maaloula, where Islamist fighters kidnapped 12 nuns from a convent. Vatican envoy to Syria, Mario Zenari, appealed to the international community to help rescue the sisters who are reportedly being held in the neighboring rebel-controlled town of Yabroud.

Rebels “forced the sisters to evacuate and to follow them toward Yabroud,” Zenari told Reuters from Damascus via telephone, adding that he did not know the reasons for the nuns being forced to leave.

A few days after the capture of the sisters, a video emerged on Al Jazeera showing over a dozen nuns wearing their traditional garments. When the women are asked if they were kidnapped, the nuns deny it and maintained they had left the monastery to escape the shelling.

"We are being treated well. They brought us from the convent, out from under the shelling ... they rescued us, and we're very happy with them," one nun said, adding they expected to be released in the next two days.

RT’s Arabic channel interviewed a Sunni inhabitant of the town where the nuns were being held. He said the validity of the video was questionable as it was likely the nuns were forced into it.

“We know they cannot exercise free will and [have to] say what the armed kidnappers order them to,” said Mahmoud Diab to Rossiya al-Yaum.

The increase in kidnapping by Islamist extremists has prompted not only the condemnation of the international community but also opposition groups, who accuse them of hijacking the rebellion against Assad in favor of their own interests.

“Her kidnapping and the kidnapping of her colleagues indicates yet again the endeavor of some to undermine any form of civil action to help Syrians in the liberated areas to rule and provide for themselves,” said the Violations Documentation Center to the Financial Times.

In the video, broadcast by Al Jazeera, more than a dozen nuns were filmed in their traditional black garments sitting on couches in a room.

Asked by a man, not seen in the footage, if they had been taken against their will, one of the nuns denied it, saying they had left the monastery to escape the shelling, and that they would be released after two days.