Sunni rebel fighters in Syria have claimed responsibility for kidnapping at least 94 Alawite women and children and have demanded an exchange of prisoners, according to a video released Thursday.
The video, obtained and broadcast by Al-Jazeera, features dozens of women and children in a walled-in yard. One of the hostages, with a microphone attached to her clothes, is apparently voicing the demands of the kidnappers.
The abducted civilians come from villages in the coastal province of Latakia, traditionally loyal to President Assad. Latakia’s population is mostly people from the Alawite sect, a branch of Shiite Islam, to which Syria’s ruling elite belongs. The country’s Sunni Muslim majority has been largely anti-Assad.
The rebels have offered to swap their Alawite hostages for 2,000 prisoners who have been detained for more than a year, Al Jazeera reports. The condition put forward by the kidnappers is that the prisoners should be from coastal areas of Syria and half of them should be women and children.
The demand for a prisoner exchange comes a week after 13 Greek Orthodox nuns were released by fighters from the Al Nusra Front, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria. A rebel source, cited by Reuters, said the nuns were freed in exchange for release of 138 women from Assad’s prisons.
A woman in the Alawite hostage video allegedly accuses Assad of allowing the release of people belonging to another religion, while ignoring those of his own.
The three-year-old Syrian insurgency-turned-war has claimed 146,000 lives, according to estimates released on Thursday by UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest United Nations report on Syrian casualties, which put the death toll at around 100,000, was published in July 2013. The organization said in January it would no longer update its figures, as the situation in Syria did not allow it to make accurate estimates.
Two rounds of peace talks between the Assad government and the opposition forces mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva earlier this year failed to put an end to fighting or to make the two sides strike a deal on a transitional government.