Members of the Syrian opposition group Islam Army Syrian have placed hostages in more than 100 cages and dispersed them in residential areas around the city of Douma, located in the eastern outskirts of the capital city, in an attempt to push both Russia and Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad to stop its recent air strikes on the city which have claimed the lives of more than 70 people and heavily wounded more than 550 others.
The tactic is an attempt to send a strong message to Russia and Assad. "If you bombard our civilians, your men will be killed too," members of Islam Army, one of the opposition factions fighting against forces loyal to the Assad regime, said.
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According to Baraa Abdulrahman, a media activist close to Islam Army which is the dominant opposition fighting faction in the region, said that the hostages are senior officers in the Syrian regime's army who were captured three years ago along with their families during fighting.
"After what happened in the city of Douma and the whole eastern Ghouta, most people decided to place those prisoners from the Alawite sect - and they are high ranking regime officers - to be placed in cages all over towns and cities in Eastern Ghouta so they can have a taste of our misery and so they can be targeted by Russian air strikes as are our children and our women," Abdulrahman said in a video clip that previewed the hostages held in cages as they were being dispersed across the town.
“Human rights and humanitarian organisations will start calling on the opposition to release those officers,” he added. “We didn’t hear those organizations calling to save the people of Eastern Ghouta.”
The video featured interviews with hostages as they were transported in cages, demanding that Assad and Russia must stop bombing the area and negotiate their release.
“I hope the regime and the Russian jets stop the bombardment,” said one female prisoner identified as being originally from the president’s hometown, while the male prisoners appeared to be members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
They have been held hostage for three years and the Assad regime has negotiated many hostage exchanges with opposition fighting factions that guaranteed the freedom of Iranian prisoners rather the Syrian Alawites.
Louay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman, had previously commented on a major swap that happened on Jan. 9, 2013 between the Assad regime and opposition fighting factions, stressing that Assad focused on obtaining the release of Iranian hostages.
“Assad proved he is an Iranian puppet because he agreed to release over 2,000 in return for 48 Iranians,” he said, adding that “he did not care about Syrian officers who are also detained with us.”
On July 31, Victoria Nuland, the US State Department Spokeswoman, stated, "The regime chose to swap people that it was holding, not for Syrian citizens, primarily, not for Alawite [President Bashar Assad's minority sect] primarily but instead for Iranians. Further indicating how much they value the life of their own citizens versus the surrogates who are propping them up."
Bilal Abu Salah, a media activist from Douma, said in a Skype interview with the New York Times on Sunday, “it’s to protect the civilians.”
A paramedic from Douma, Ahmad, said the casualties from recent Russian air strikes “were women and kids mostly.”
One of the hostages, who identified himself on video as a colonel held captive more than three years ago, said, “Enough bloodshed and enough fighting ourselves.”
“Let’s solve our problems with our hands,” he added, “away from these Russians you brought to our country.”
Mohammad Hasan, another media activist from Douma, said, “hopefully the Russians will stop bombing us.”
“You can’t imagine what we witnessed during the last two days. I survived a rocket attack yesterday that landed right beside me. Two women were close to the rocket. They were torn in pieces,” Hasan continued.
On Friday, the Assad regime bombed a crowded marketplace in the town of Douma, killing at least 70 people, according to the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which added that regime warplanes also hit a hospital this week.
The Islam Army’s stronghold of Eastern Ghouta has been under intense bombardment by Russian warplanes since the group managed to block the main northern entrance into the capital city of Damascus.
Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Islam Army, said in an interview with an American journalist, Roy Gutman, in May, that “coexistence with minorities” was part of a long Syrian tradition.
“We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them,” Alloush said. “On the contrary, we have always criticized the regime and fought it because it was practicing sectarian discrimination against the majority.”