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13 Sep, 2013 16:23

‘Either rebels are responsible for the chemical attack, or Assad’s forces lost their minds’ - French ex-hostage

A phone conversation between the opposition fighters may prove that it was opposition who used gas on civilians in Syria – that’s according to Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin da Prata, who had been held hostage by rebels for months.

Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin and Italian journalist Domenico Quiric were kidnapped in Syria last April by a group of armed men in pickup trucks who were believed to be from Free Syrian Army. Both men tried to escape twice but their attempts were unsuccessful, prompting the rebel group to punish them for their actions. 

The Italian government announced on Sunday that they had been freed after Rome intensified negotiations with the rebels for the release of the prisoners ahead of an anticipated US strike on Syria. The former hostages told a number of European media outlets that they overheard an English-language Skype conversation between their captors and other men which suggested it was rebel forces, not the government, that used chemical weapons on Syria’s civilian population in an August 21 attack near Damascus. Pierre Piccinin da Prata answered RT's questions about his experience.

RT: In previous interviews, you said you do not believe Bashar Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack near Damascus. Can you tell us why?

Pierre Piccinin de Prata: I don’t think that Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian government are to blame for the chemical attack in Al-Ghouta. During that time, my Italian friend and I had been taken hostage by jihadists from the Al-Farouk group in Syria. We were held at one point in a room facing an office of the Free Army and the Al-Farouk jihadist group. We have been in the barracks of the Free Syrian Army and of the Al-Farouk jihadist group as well and we heard a conversation from this office.  The conversation was between one general from the Free Syrian Army, we knew him from earlier, as he was the one who was in charge of our detention – and another officer from the Farouk Brigade. There was also a third person who was speaking perfect English and they were talking to him via Skype. They were talking about the events of Al-Ghouta in the Damascus suburb and from the conversation it was clear that the Syrian government wasn't behind the attack… It was about gas, sure. They talked about the gas sarin, that’s what we learned later.  But when we found out what happened, because we were prisoners for about four months, and a bit disconnected from the news, we learned everything about the events from that conversation. The question of the type of gas wasn’t raised. There was a gas, but I can’t tell you if it was sarin or not. 

Italian journalist Domenico Quirico and Belgian national Pierre Piccinin (unseen), both kidnapped in Syria in early April, disembark from the airplane on September 9, 2013 at Ciampino military airport in Rome. (AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro)

RT: Did you hear why exactly the rebels decided to resort to chemical weapons?

PPP: Their motivation wasn't clear from the conversation, but we figured that it would have been absurd for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons. The regime had nothing to gain from the Al-Ghouta massacre. On the contrary, it played into the hands of its enemies – the US, France and the UK. It gave them a good reason to use force against the Assad government. Either the Syrian government lost its mind – but I don't believe that – or the authors of the attack are the opposition. And it is clear that the rebels are the ones who wanted to benefit from the situation. Let us remind you that the rebels already tried to simulate a gas attack a year ago in Homs, they made a video showing people on the ground acting as if they had been victims of neurotic gas.  It’s clear that those who have something to gain were the rebels. We could also remember that the rebels were already thought responsible for a gas attack in Homs. A video emerged and turned out to be a staged thing. We saw a few people in convulsions on the floor, as though they were victims of neurotoxic gas [attack]. We know that the chemical weapons use is considered by the international community “a red line” that shouldn’t be crossed. It seemed that the rebels wanted to provoke the international community and lead them to intervene. The revolution is currently going badly, different rebel groups in Syria lose ground. In particular, my Italian companion and me, we were detained in Al-Kuser which rebels lost after a siege carried out by the government, which led the authorities to a big victory in the region. 

RT:What faction were those rebels from?

PPP: The rebels that we heard talking, they were from two rebel groups. On the one hand, one was from the FSA, on the other hand – Al-Farouq. They are considered two major opposition groups in Syria, two major forces of revolution. During our five months of being hostages, we weren’t held by Al-Qaeda. They weren’t responsible for that. We have no information what was demanded from our governments: money, political compensations, arms. It’s a state secret. 

RT:Can you tell us more about your captivity - what conditions were you were kept in?

PPP: We passed five days in a cave, and at some point a soldier from the regular army, a young man called Talad, 20-25 years old approximately, joined us and was held there, too. But when we quit Al-Qusayr, [the militants] decided to cross the governmental front line, to quit Al-Qusayr, this soldier was taken out of the cave 30 minutes before us and disappeared. We never saw him again. We heard gunfire after he was taken out, so we can suppose that the jihadists eliminated him.

Free Syrian Army fighters (Reuters/Hamid Khatib)

RT:Why did you go to Syria? Surely you knew it would be risky?

PPP: It was my eighth visit to Syria since the beginning of the revolution… I think that the Syrian revolution is very complex and we need journalists to observe what's going on, on the ground, as well as political analysts to come here and try to understand the situation. It has become even more risky since we have been betrayed by the Free Syrian Army. We went to Syria under the Free Syrian Army's protection and we had all the guarantees of security but we have been betrayed and given to the Farouk Brigade. So I advise journalists not to go there, where we can’t trust the rebels.

RT:Have you heard of or witnessed any other atrocities committed by the rebels?

PPP: I supported this rebellion, and now I’m supporting it, too. Not the jihadist movements, but the FSA which consists of people who look to establish democracy. Unfortunately, we have stated many times over these 5 months of atrocities… Bandits, of an Islamist nature, captured Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and massacred them: the men were beaten by the jihadists, and later their fingers were cut off, and they were strangled.

The FSA have been losing its fighters without the means to fight, as the Western democracies didn’t support the democratic and secular rebellion of the FSA. Many of those fighters went to the jihadist movements, which receive money and funds from the Gulf monarchies, in particular, can get arms, so they have the means to fight, and can feed the fighters, as well as assure the basic logistic necessities.

We can’t speak of the rebels as one group. The rebellion is fragmented, and there are many different groups. There are dominant groups like the FSA, Al-Nusra, Al-Farouk. There are also [other] Islamist groups. More recently, we’re seeing groups of bandits who claim they belong to the Free Syrian Army, but who in fact control a territory and live at the expense of locals whom they tax and exploit.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.