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'Londoner against Londoner': UK fighters held journalist captive in Syria

Photojournalist John Cantlie tells Krishnan Guru-Murthy of the UK's Channel 4 News about the terrifying week he was held captive in Syria by radical Islamist militants, some of them British.

LONDON -- A British photojournalist has described the terrifying week he was held captive by radical Islamist militants in Syria, where he and another photographer constantly feared for their lives at the hands of "disenchanted" young Britons.

Writing in The Sunday Times newspaper (site operates behind a pay wall), seasoned conflict photographer John Cantlie said he and Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans were repeatedly told to prepare to die and at one point "we heard the worst noise we will hear in our lives: the sharpening of knives for a beheading."


It was not supposed to be that way.

The two men, along with their Syrian guide named in the article only as Mohamed, had entered the country on July 19 to cover the 17-month-old uprising in Syria, where fighters with the opposition Free Syrian Army have been battling to oust President Bashar Assad's regime and end his family's four-decade grip on power.

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But after accidentally stumbling into an encampment of foreign fighters, the men quickly found themselves part of a different kind of war with unexpected combatants.

"I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists -- young men with south London accents -- shot to kill," Cantlie wrote of the pair's attempted escape early in their captivity.

"They were aiming their Kalashnikov at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands," he wrote.

The British Foreign Office has said it was investigating reports of Britons taking part in the fighting in Syria.

The U.K. government "takes very seriously any claims or reports that indicate there are British nationals amongst foreign fighters in Syria," a spokesperson told the British Broadcasting Corp.

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"We are monitoring the situation as closely as possible. Clearly, the deteriorating security situation in Syria leaves a dangerous space for foreign fighters. The solution lies in securing robust international action to resolve the crisis," the BBC quoted the spokesperson as saying.

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Cantlie was on assignment for The Sunday Times and Oerlemans for Britain-based Panos Pictures.

'Biggest risk was from the British'
The two men were immediately seized by around 30 fighters when they entered the camp, which they had thought belonged to the Free Syrian Army. The journalists soon realized none of the fighters was Syrian.

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The fighters were from various places, Cantlie wrote, including Britain, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Chechnya. At least several women were among them, he wrote.

The captors were mostly in their 20s and varied in temperament, Cantlie said, but the two captives feared the dozen or so Britons more than the others.

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"The biggest risk was from the British," Cantlie wrote.

The Britons did not seem to be experienced fighters, Cantlie wrote.

"They were thrilled to be in Syria. All their talk was of how to take out a tank, how to advance across open ground and how to clear a building. The camp was like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds," he wrote.

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Cantlie quoted one man who claimed to be a former supermarket worker in Britain as threatening: "You are spies. You work for (British domestic security agency) MI5, you work for (British foreign intelligence agency) MI6. Prepare for the afterlife. Are you ready to meet Allah?"

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Freed by rebel Syrian fighters
Cantlie, Oerlemans and Mohamed attempted to escape on the second day of their captivity, but both journalists were shot and wounded before being recaptured. Mohamed managed to flee the camp and raised the alarm with members of the Free Syrian Army, who later liberated the journalists after eight days in captivity.

The captors were not part of the Free Syrian Army, Cantlie wrote. When rebel soldiers freed the journalists, they showed their anger at the young Islamic militants for taking foreign journalists captive.

"I'm so sorry about what's happened to you. We've been looking for you for three days. We were waiting for the right time to get you out," Cantlie quoted one of their rescuers as saying.

"We know about these foreigners. There are about 40 of them. We didn't know they would do something like this. ... This is not the way of the Syrian people. This is our revolution. We don't want these people coming in here in our name," the man said, according to Cantlie's account.

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Cantlie and Oerlemans, who were blindfolded for most of their captivity, have both returned home and are recovering from their injuries.

There have been increasing reports about foreign fighters in Syria, but it remains unclear how many are in the country and for what they are fighting.

The locus point of the fighting in Syria has shifted in recent weeks to the commercial hub of Aleppo, where rebels have been battered by heavy weaponry unleashed by Assad's regime, as well as the capital Damascus. The conflict has claimed an estimated 18,000 lives across Syria.

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