Syria: release of Ukrainian journalist held by armed group is first test of opposition coalition

‘Hostage-taking during armed conflict is a war crime’ - Ann Harrison

The main Syrian opposition coalition must ensure the release of a Ukrainian journalist being held hostage by an unidentified armed group which says it is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

Amnesty International is describing it as the first test of the newly-created opposition grouping.

The woman, Anhar Kochneva, is shown on a video posted on YouTube on 28 November “confessing” that her main role in Syria was to translate between Syrian and Russian officers, as well as taking part in the conflict.

The Ukrainian government has said it is working to free the journalist, but in another video on 12 December, unidentified masked armed men are shown reacting to the Ukrainian government’s intervention by saying that no Russian, Ukrainian or Iranian should leave Syria alive. Russia and Iran have consistently supported the Syrian government during the armed conflict.  

The call for Ms Kochneva’s release came as the Friends of Syria group recognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the Syrian people’s legitimate representative, amid escalating use of heavy weaponry by the Syrian government. Amnesty is calling on the opposition coalition to act now to ensure that its allied armed groups adhere strictly to their obligations under international humanitarian law and commit to upholding human rights standards.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“Syrian opposition leaders need to secure Anhar Kochneva’s safe release immediately. Hostage-taking during armed conflict is a war crime.

“There are increasing reports of opposition forces carrying out horrific abuses of captured government soldiers, journalists, and some other civilians. The Coalition must condemn these grave abuses in the strongest possible terms, and do its utmost to prevent them.

“The Coalition’s leaders must ensure that any armed group within its control is aware that those committing war crimes and other egregious abuses will be held to account in the future.”

Amnesty is recommending that a clearly defined hierarchy and chain of command be established within the new military command, with a view to preventing war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. It is also urging the Syrian opposition coalition to provide clear and unequivocal instructions that chemical weapons will never be used should they fall into the hands of opposition forces.

Amnesty has previously urged that the lives of over 40 Iranians held as hostages by the al-Bara’a brigade be protected, after members of the brigade threatened to kill them in October.  The group said they postponed the killings “pending negotiations”.

Meanwhile, there are continuing concerns about the safety of civilians in Syria generally as indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian government using aerial bombardment and mortar shelling escalate. Amnesty has urged a halt to use of mortars, artillery and free-fall unguided bombs to attack targets in civilian neighbourhoods.

Ann Harrison added:

“We are very concerned about evidence indicating that the Syrian authorities have used incendiary weapons to attack residential areas, as well as cluster bombs.

“Cluster weapons are inherently indiscriminate and their use violates international humanitarian law. Incendiary weapons may be used to create smokescreens but should never be used in densely populated civilian areas because of the danger they pose to civilians.”

View latest press releases