By Ruth Sherlock, Beirut
An epidemic of kidnappings has broken out in Syria, with rebels funding their military operations with ransoms and common criminals taking the opportunity to make money.
In al-Bab, a town on the periphery of Aleppo, abductions have become so frequent that rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are publicising a helpline number, writing it on walls and placing it on social media.
“When they receive a call from relatives of the victim, they track down the kidnappers. Then they either issue threats, or they go in for the rescue using force,” said a resident from the area.
Dr Mousab Azzawi, from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, confirmed that abductions were becoming more frequent. “Only recently in Aleppo we have heard of three abductions by groups asking for ransom,” he said.
Residents said that all sides in the civil war are using the tactic. Mohammed, a student at Aleppo University, said that the same FSA group that is cracking down on abductions made by gangs of opportunists are also running their own kidnapping operations to raise “funds for the revolution”.
This unit, known as the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq brigade, kidnapped the “son of my uncle’s business partner,” said Mohammed. “The group demanded 5 million Syrian pounds (£47,000) for his release.”
A former Catholic clergyman said that he fled Aleppo when fighting reached his home and a number of acquaintances were kidnapped.
“The FSA know who the rich families are in Aleppo. They watch their homes and movements,” he said. “A man I know, whose father is very rich, was on the pavement when a rebel group forced him into a car and drove away. Two weeks later they called the father and demanded a huge sum of money – I think it was 25 million Syrian pounds [£233,700]. They said on the phone that they didn’t want the money for themselves, but for the revolution.”
The money was left in the appointed place and the rebels collected it with their faces covered. “Ten minutes later, he received a call telling him were his son was,” said the former clergyman.
Amid the unfolding anarchy, Syrian rebels have been known to kidnap other rebels by accident, according to Mohammed and other residents of Aleppo.
People taken by the rebels have tried to show their opposition to President Bashar al-Assad by directing their captors to anti-regime slogans on their Facebook pages.
More evidence of the country’s descent into communal civil war emerged in Damascus on Friday when 45 corpses were discovered in two of the capital’s satellite towns. Up to 23 bodies, including women and children, were found dead in Zamalka on Thursday, while another 22 were discovered in Qatana in the countryside south-east of the capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group.
The violence is now reminiscent of the lawlessness and anarchy that gripped Iraq after the invasion in 2003, with kidnappings, mass killings and car bombings becoming near daily events in the capital.
A motorcycle bomb exploded near a mosque in the northern district of Rukn al-Din, killing at least five security officers, Syria’s state television station reported. Hours later, a vehicle exploded near the central law courts and the ministry of information in a prosperous area of Damascus.