Syrians stalked by increasing kidnap threat
Syria's residents, already terrorised by a conflict now in its third year, are also being stalked by the increasing threat of kidnap, with motives ranging from sectarianism and prisoner exchange to ransom.
Syria's government on Tuesday offered kidnappers an amnesty deal, giving them 15 days to hand over victims or face sentences ranging from life with hard labour to execution, if their victims were murdered or sexually abused.
The decree speaks to the scale of the problem, which has spared virtually no corner of the country, affecting civilians and fighters from both sides and implicating both opposition forces and supporters of the regime.
But it is unlikely to stem the flow of disappearances carried out by regime loyalists, nor convince rebel forces or criminal gangs operating in largely lawless swathes of the country to turn themselves in.
Motives appear to vary widely, even overlapping at times, with kidnappers targeting victims on the basis of sectarian affiliations, but also demanding ransoms.
Lama Fakih, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Syria and Lebanon, said the group has also documented "tit-for-tat kidnappings, sometimes between neighbourhoods, where people take someone in order to exchange them for someone else."
"We also see some instances of kidnappings where it does seem that religious minorities are more vulnerable to these sorts of attacks because they are seen to be supporters of the government," she said.
Activists say kidnappings motivated by sectarian hatred are more common in areas where communities of different religious backgrounds live near each other but are separated by frontlines.
Men, women and even children have been affected, and kidnappers often demand sums around three million Syrian pounds ($42,000).
One Syrian said on condition of anonymity that he had been kidnapped on the Aleppo-Damascus road.
"I spent around 10 days in the town of Taftanaz and I was released only after the payment of four million Syrian pounds in ransom to a middleman," he said.
Some Damascus residents say they have altered their habits accordingly, ditching expensive cars for nondescript ones, dressing down and avoiding walking in the street alone where possible.
"Most kidnappers are motivated by a desire for financial gain, though some operate on a sectarian basis," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said, describing the emergence of "organised gangs" of kidnappers.
"They are warlords who take advantage of the insecurity that is ravaging the country," he said.
Activists acknowledge that rebels are also involved in kidnapping, seeking ransoms to finance their fight.
In the area around Damascus, one activist said, "most (kidnapping) has been committed by regime forces -- including pro-regime militia -- or rebels."
"We haven't seen many (criminal) gangs motivated purely by financial gain emerge here."
Rights groups including Amnesty International say they have documented sectarian and political kidnappings by opposition fighters.
"These have included people captured apparently because of their nationality... or their political views, notably for belonging to the ruling Ba'ath Party or for otherwise supporting the Syrian government," the group said.
A 37-year-old Syrian Christian, who declined to give his name, said he was kidnapped by members of the Suqoor al-Sham rebel brigade along with two others "because of our membership in the (pro-regime) Syrian Social Nationalist Party."
"One young man was killed, while we were released after several weeks in a prisoner exchange," he said, adding that his kidnappers forced him to study the Koran and subjected him "to physical and psychological torture."
The opposition has criticised such behaviour.
"We condemn kidnapping in all its forms, and whatever the excuses used to justify it," Ahmad al-Khatib of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of activists, said.
And opposition members are also victims of the phenomenon, with thousands reportedly "disappeared" -- usually abducted by government forces or supporters of the regime.
"The numbers of individuals that are disappeared that are affiliated with the opposition are incredibly high," Fakih said. "So it's certainly not something that's just happening on one side of the conflict."
Observers say it is impossible to know how many people have been affected, but Abdel Rahman says "several hundred people have been kidnapped on a sectarian basis, and several thousand more for money."