by Staff Writers
London (AFP) Nov 22, 2017
Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders called on Wednesday for renewed efforts to secure the release of British photojournalist John Cantlie held by the Islamic State group on the fifth anniversary of his kidnapping.
Cantlie was taken near the Turkish border in northern Syria along with US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by IS in 2014.
"Today marks five long years that John Cantlie has been held in captivity," said Rebecca Vincent, UK director for Reporters Without Borders, which is known by its French acronym as RSF.
She said Cantlie, who has appeared in a series of videos released by IS, had been "deprived of his liberty, exploited and used for propaganda purposes".
"We urge all relevant authorities to do their utmost to ensure that John and his family do not have to endure another day of this hell, and that he is immediately brought home safely," she said in a statement.
Cantlie last appeared in a video in December 2016 in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which has since been recaptured from IS jihadists.
In July 2017, RSF said there were unsubstantiated reports in Iraqi media that Cantlie had been killed in air strikes on Mosul.
In October, it said an IS fighter had told French magazine Paris Match that he had seen Cantlie "seven or eight months ago" in Raqa, the jihadists' former stronghold in Syria.
Cantlie is one of around 22 journalists and media workers still believed to be held hostage by IS, RSF said.
"Despite the fact that IS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, there has been no information about the fate of these journalists," the watchdog said.
"RSF calls on local and international authorities to redouble their efforts to find them all."
Iraq and Syria are ranked 158th and 177th respectively on RSF's World Press Freedom Index as among the world's deadliest countries for journalists.
Syria opposition meets in Riyadh under pressure to compromise
The meeting came as Iran, Russia and Turkey held a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, pressing their diplomatic dash to resolve Syria's six-year conflict with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks set to open in Geneva next Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran's Hassan Rouhani had agreed to a "congress" of Syrian regime and opposition forces in Sochi, aimed at boosting the Geneva process.
The Riyadh meeting was co-chaired by the UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who said the aim was to reach a "fair solution" to the conflict.
De Mistura said the goal was to give momentum to next week's talks in Geneva by forging a unified opposition delegation, as long demanded by the Syrian government.
He said he would travel to Moscow on Thursday for talks with Russian officials.
"I'm always optimistic... especially in this moment," he said.
The 140 or so delegates from a wide range of opposition platforms are under heavy pressure to row back on some of their more radical demands after a series of recent battlefield victories that have given President Bashar al-Assad's regime the upper hand.
Absent are several former leading figures who were seen as unwilling to compromise.
Among them is Riad Hijab, who stepped down as leader of the Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) ahead of the meeting complaining that there were "attempts to lower the ceiling of the revolution and prolong the regime".
Multiple rounds of talks hosted by the UN have failed to bring an end to the war in Syria, which has killed more than 330,000 people since 2011 and forced millions from their homes.
Factions opposed to Assad have been plagued by divisions throughout the maelstrom.
Participants in the Riyadh meeting include members of the Istanbul-based National Coalition as well as of rival Cairo- and Moscow-based groups seen as more favourable to the regime, and independent figures.
Qadri Jamil, who heads the Moscow-based group, on Wednesday announced he would not be attending the talks, citing what he said was the Syrian opposition's inability to agree on "the bases and principles" of their stance at the Saudi summit.
The National Coalition meanwhile said Jamil had pulled out after "disagreement over an article on Bashar al-Assad stepping down and the start of a transitional phase" in Syria.
- Forming 'the right opposition' -
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he expected that the withdrawal of Hijab and other hardliners in recent days would "help the Syria-based and foreign-based opposition unite on a constructive basis".
Observers said it could clear the way for a new negotiating team that would water down some of the opposition's longstanding demands, notably Assad's immediate ouster.
His fate has been one of the chief obstacles to progress in peace talks, with the opposition demanding he step down at the start of any transition.
"The Saudi pitch to the Syrian opposition has been that denial will only make the situation worse, and that they have to rethink their strategy," said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington.
"The problem... is that the political opposition does not see it that way, and most activists are still struck in the 2012 thinking, that Assad has to be toppled."
Ahead of the meeting, dozens of prominent civilian and armed opposition figures appealed to participants not to compromise on the "ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his gang".
"No one should back down or quietly circumvent" it, they said in an online statement.
HNC member Yehya al-Aridi acknowledged some participants, notably the Moscow platform, were more flexible on the president's future.
But they "do not represent the choices of the revolution or the Syrian people," Aridi told AFP.
And Hisham Marwah, another National Coalition member, said his group's "positions toward Assad have not changed".
"Whoever is betting on the Riyadh conference to legitimise the presence of Assad is delusional," Marwah told AFP.
Riyadh (AFP) Nov 22, 2017
Syrian opposition figures met in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday in a bid to form an overhauled delegation to peace talks that analysts say may be more willing to compromise on key demands. The meeting came as Iran, Russia and Turkey held a summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, pressing their diplomatic dash to resolve Syria's six-year conflict with a new round of UN-brokered peace talks set to ... read more
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