UK probes British Pakistanis’ ‘support’ to Syrian extremists
* Released journalists say their captors were radical Muslims
* Claim kidnappers were from Britain, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Chechnya
By Asif Mehmood
LONDON: The British government has started an investigation after the revelation that some British Muslims of Pakistani origin have joined extremist groups in Syria to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al Assad.
British journalist John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans were captured almost immediately after crossing the Turkish border and held for a week at an extremist training camp in northwestern Syria, revealed British extremists with “Birmingham and South London accents”, who were among a group that shot a British war photographer and his Dutch colleague after taking them hostage in Syria last week.
The photographers, who were both shot during a failed escape attempt, were freed on Thursday night during a raid on the camp by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who returned them to Turkey. Cantlie, who has reported for several British newspapers, said the militants who detained them included several radical Muslims from Britain who were intent on overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As he recovered at the weekend, he told the Sunday newspaper in an email, “Shot in the arm, smashed feet after a botched escape attempt, but safe and sound. Before we were rescued, 30 percent of the extremists who held us were British.” Oerlemans said that their captors were militants from Britain, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Chechnya. He told the Dutch media that some of the group, described as between 30 and 100 strong, had “Birmingham accents”.
An unidentified source described as being close to the incident told The Sunday Telegraph that there were at least six men with British-sounding voices, including one with a heavy South London accent. The source said that some 40 percent of the group apparently spoke English, but it was not clear what nationalities they were.
Oerlemans, who works for the British agency Panos Pictures, described how he and Cantlie had been led into their camp by their guide after becoming lost, only to be surrounded by militants armed with Kalashnikovs. At first the captors promised to free them if they could prove that they were journalists, but later they accused them of working for the CIA, and took their equipment and documents. Oerlemans said that when it became clear that their captors planned to seek ransom, the photographers tried to escape, but were quickly intercepted, with Oerlemans shot in the foot and thigh, and Cantlie in the arm.
Their captors bandaged the wounds but kept the two men handcuffed and blindfolded after that, Oerlemans said, “I don’t think there was one Syrian among them. They were from all over the world.”
He added that they spoke of being under the leadership of an unidentified “amir”. Oerlemans told Dutch media, “They were definitely quite extreme in their religious beliefs. All day we were spoken to about the holy Quran and how they would bring sharia law to Syria. I don’t think they were al Qaeda, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, ‘We’re not al Qaeda, but al-Qaeda is down the road’. They would cock their weapons and say, ‘Prepare for the afterlife’, or, ‘You better repent and accept Islam’. It was pretty terrifying, I can assure you.”
Oerlemans said he and Cantlie were blindfolded when the FSA entered the militants’ camp during a raid on Thursday night, shouting, “How long has this been going on? This is outrageous.”