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Syrian rebels tried to get reporter killed in anti-Assad propaganda bid – report

Published time: June 09, 2012 00:01
Edited time: June 09, 2012 07:51

Syrian rebels posing for a picture during the funeral procession of a man killed in violence in Silkin in the northwestern province of Idlib on June 6, 2012. (AFP Photo / Shaam News Network)

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Journalist Alex Thomson reports that Syrian rebels set him and his crew up to be killed by Syrian troops in a bid to show Damascus in a negative light.

­Thomson, a chief correspondent for Channel 4 news, says he and his group were deliberately given incorrect directions by a group of Syrian rebels. As a result, their car entered a free-fire zone, where the road ahead was blocked off, and started receiving shots presumably fired by the Syrian army, who thought the vehicle belonged to rebels.

Suddenly four men in a black car beckon us to follow,” he wrote on the channel’s website. “We move out behind. We are led another route. Led in fact, straight into a free-fire zone. Told by the Free Syrian Army to follow a road that was blocked off in the middle of no-man’s land."

They then tried to escape the attack by driving onto a nearby side-street, but it turned out to be dead end. Eventually, they returned to the road where the group of rebels had seen them off.

Predictably the black car was there which had led us to the trap. They roared off as soon as we re-appeared,” Thomson noted.

Thomson said he was sure the rebels were eager to get him and his crew killed in order to have the international community blame Damascus for the death of Western reporters.

I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian army. Dead journos are bad for Damascus,” he stated.

Thomson’s mission to Syria was unique in a way, as he was reporting on both sides of the conflict, interviewing both Assad loyalists and rebels. In fact, he was in the country on a legal visa, issued by the Syrian government.

The reported incident comes just days after as many as 78 people were killed in the village of Mazraat al-Qubair in the Hama province. UN monitors that tried to asses the massacre were shot at.

‘Both sides involved in very dirty tactics’

RT did an extensive interview with Thomson on the details of his ordeal, and the situation in the country in general.

RT: What you are basically saying is that rebel forces set you up to be shot at by the Syrian army?

Alex Thomson: I have no doubt in my mind what happened, nor independently, does the very experienced cameraman I was with, and, perhaps more importantly than that, neither does the driver or the translator we were working with have any doubt at all that we were deliberately led out of that town, which the rebels knew was dangerous. We were led there in a car with four men. Two or three of them were armed. They told us to go down a route which looked dangerous to us, but we trusted them, we said we would go down the route and turn. We turned and found it was blocked. That was a roadblock which they had to have known was there. There was nobody around and at that point we were forced to turn the vehicle around in a free-fire zone and were duly fired upon. We were definitely exposed to a dangerous situation. And I have absolutely no doubt they did it deliberately. When we reappeared, still alive, the car full of men saw us, turned round and drove off at speed.

RT: So the car you were in, the Syrian army had no way to tell that you were foreign journalists?

AT: We did have a small sign in the windscreen saying press. We did not mark the car up with large letters saying TV or anything like that. There were very few journalists in this area. We were the only ones, so I think we were moving under conditions of reasonable safety.

RT: Why did you trust the rebel forces in the first place?

AT: We had no reason not to trust the rebel forces any more than we had any reason not to trust the Syrian army. By and large, when we spoke to Syrian people on both sides of the war, they were pretty honest and pretty straightforward in their assessments of the situation. That was the situation in places like Homs, on both sides, in Houla, on both sides. It was certainly the case on one side in al-Qubair. But when we got to the rebel side of al-Qubair, there was something different and for the first time, we encountered a degree of hostility and suspicion about us, because they had never seen foreign journalists who had a visa from Damascus, who were in the country legally, not illegally. And that immediately aroused suspicion on their part.

RT: So most foreign journalists are there illegally?

AT: That’s a fact. Most foreign, Western journalists who cover the war from the rebel side are smuggled in from Lebanon and so forth illegally to the country. It is very unusual, almost unheard of, to do the kind of things that we were doing, which is to go from Damascus, cross the lines with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and talk to both sides.

RT: So can it be that your willingness to talk to both sides was the reason why the rebels wanted to set you up?

AT: That’s certainly possibly the case. There was another journalist in al-Qubair, an American freelance photographer, who had been there for some weeks; I don’t imagine that he would have been treated in that kind of way because they would have had a great deal more trust. To be fair to the rebels, you’re not looking at a credible and well-organized army with a very well-organized command and control structure. It was almost like there were groups of different men in the town who controlled different areas, different streets. There was a lot of rivalry. And I think, as much as anything else, we got involved in their turf war, with different groups of soldiers fighting with each other, jostling with each other around our car, not sure what to do with us, not sure how to treat us, not sure quite what we were doing there. We caused a lot of confusion to that extent and they weren’t used to that.

RT: Are there any grounds to believe that the Shabbiha were impersonating the rebels that misled you?

AT: No, I didn’t make a mistake on that. You can argue we made a mistake listening to what these guys were telling us. You can argue we made a mistake leaving site of the UN, although later these guys forced their car between us and the UN, and the UN drove off and left us as they said they would do, I have no problem with that. There is no way that these were some extremist Shabbiha. We were inside the town, in the streets, in areas completely controlled by the Free Syrian Army. They were all FSA people there. The idea that some bizarre could have wandered in to this situation unnoticed is ludicrous.

RT: Couldn’t rebels just kill you themselves and make it look as it was Assad’s forces?

AT: Yeah, of course they could. But in order to do that, the guys who actually did this would have had to physically taken us, probably in another vehicle, in order to do that, because they would have probably not been able to do that with other guys watching. Don’t forget, most of the people who were in that town were very welcoming to us, very helpful, giving interviews. A lot of them were very cool and very relaxed with us. It was just this one group who suddenly decided to do what they did.

RT: So the rebels are not united? Are there different groups doing different things, basically?

AT: Not exactly. What I mean is, you have the regular Free Syrian Army who are organized as you would expect a national army to be organized. They have a coherent command and control structure. They know who is in charge of their unit. That unit knows who is in charge of the area. The area knows who is in charge of the region, and they know who the boss man is. It works. They’re pushed, they’re under stress, they’re losing men, as this is a civil war. It is not the same when you cross to the other side. Clearly you are dealing with a much less coherent force. The only arms I saw them have were sniper rifles, AK-47s, and the very occasional rocket-propelled grenades, so they are not heavily armed. They are deeply motivated. They are prepared to die for their cause, and they are quite clearly giving the Syrian army a run for their money, but in no sense are they organized like a conventional army. 

'Dead journalists are bad for Damascus'

RT: Can you elaborate on your statement that dead journalists are bad for Damascus?

AT: My point is, dead journalists are bad for Damascus. When Marie Colvin, the British journalist got killed because she was in a building which was shelled by the Syrian army in Homs, that was an appalling propaganda blow for the Damascus regime. You don’t have to be very clever to work out that the deaths of any journalist at the hands of the Syrian army are going to be an appalling blow, again, for President Assad. That’s going to reflect all the way to Moscow and all the way to Beijing. Clearly that is going to be a bad thing in terms of propaganda. So the motivation for the rebels to pull a stunt like that seems to be very obvious. I’m not angry about it, I’m not upset about it, this is a war and these things will be done. Both sides are involved in very dirty tactics in this war. This is a nasty and dirty war on both sides.

RT: How much violence have you actually seen personally?

AT: I’ve seen dead bodies in Houla which the UN didn’t know about. I’ve seen mass graves of men involved in a fairly extensive firefight close up in the south of Houla. I’ve watched the Syrian army at various distances shelling Homs every single day, shelling Houla almost every single day.

RT: So are Assad’s troops mostly responsible for this violence?

AT: No, it’s a war. Both sides are responsible. I think the Western media is rather naïve because they constantly blame the Syrian army for killing civilians. That’s true because the Syrian army are to blame for shelling civilians, but it’s equally true that the Free Syrian Army is very largely fighting its war in built-up, populated, civilian areas. They're not exactly using civilians as human shields but if you fight in those areas, civilians are going to be killed, and that is a question which is not put to the leaders of the Free Syrian Army with the frequency that it should be, in my opinion.

RT: Is it really possible to investigate who commits atrocities such as the latest Hama massacre?

AT: It’s extremely difficult. For the UN, the answer is probably, no, not really. They don’t have the means to conduct a forensics investigation; they have no equipment, they have no training, they have no expertise to cordon off the area, to treat it as a crime scene. They haven’t the personnel or the time or the resources to make extensive inquiries. For example, when we were in Houla, everybody in Houla says that the militia who came and conducted the massacre in which 108 people died, most of them women and children, came from villages to the west of the town, which are Alawite villages. When we went to those villages, we very quickly realized that nobody had come to those people. Neither the Syrian army in the framework of their investigation that they carried out, nor the United Nations, because the Syrian army and the Syrian government isn’t that interested, but equally, I know the UN do not have the capacity to do it. So the answer to that is no.

RT: So what’s the point of the UN observer mission?

AT: I’m not sure what the point is. But the other thing I should add to that is that blame lies also with the Syrian government, which has denied access to human rights groups who would have a capacity to do an investigation into these things. But equally, they would be going into a war zone where their safety would not be guaranteed by any means. As for the purpose of the United Nations mission, it’s very easy to say that these things are pointless, but I’ve personally witnessed, for instance, the UN setting up local ceasefires. They did one at al-Rastan, for instance, which worked, which made a difference on the ground. A lot of people say that their intervention has made a difference. A lot of people say there is never any shelling when the UN are there, that the shelling only begins when they leave town. Their effect is marginal, but it’s not true to say that their mission is entirely pointless. When you look at Houla, even with the resources at their disposal, the UN did produce a very swift, interim report about what happened there.

RT:You said the UN observers didn’t protect you. Why is that?

AT: Why should they? It’s not their job. It’s not part of their mission. When you follow the UN convoy, the UN make it very clear, they’re not there to protect you. They can’t protect you. They have no weapons. If you get into trouble, you’re on your own. That’s a perfectly reasonable arrangement. I have no problems with that. I have no problems with them observing that we were in trouble, and driving off and leaving us. That’s entirely fair enough.

RT: So you have no protection while you are there?

AT: No, I have no protection.