Italy denies paying $4m ransom to Syrians

The Italian foreign ministry on Friday denied paying a $4 million (€2.9 million) ransom to kidnappers in Syria to secure the release of journalist Domenico Quirico, following a report in a US magazine.

Italy denies paying $4m ransom to Syrians
Domenico Quirico was set free five months after being kidnapped in Syria. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, a man claiming to be a hostage negotiator said he hand delivered the cash in order to free Quirico and Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin last September.

But today Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the claim. “No ransom was paid for the release of Italian Domenico Quirico,” spokesman Niccolò Fontana told The Local.

READ MORE: Italy paid $4 million to Syrian kidnappers: report

The official response stands in stark contrast to the claims made by Motaz Shaklab, described as a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Shaklab said he was contacted by a friend to locate the Europeans after they were kidnapped in April, spending three months negotiating between the group holding the pair and the Italian authorities.

After settling on the $4 million fee, Shaklab reportedly flew to Lebanon where he was met by an Italian. The two then travelled to the Syrian border where the cash was delivered, securing the release of Quirico and Piccinin four days later, Foreign Policy said.

Quirico was flown to Rome after his release and subsequently published an account of his 152-day ordeal, in which he said he was subjected to mock executions and twice tried to escape.

READ MORE: Italian faced 'mock executions' in Syria

Reports of the alleged ransom payment come the same week the Italian government agreed to host a transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons next month.

The Calabrian port of Gioia Tauro, in southern Italy, will host the February operation, during which 500 tonnes of Syria’s deadly chemicals will be moved from a Danish ship to a US vessel.

The transfer is part of a UN-backed to remove the weapons from the war-ravaged country, nearly three years into a conflict in which more than 100,000 people have been killed.

READ MORE: Calabrian port to host Syria chemical transfer

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Syrian war documentary wins top Venice prizes

A film that follows two friends through four nightmarish years of the Syrian civil war has lifted some of the top prizes at the Venice film festival, which ends Saturday.

Syrian war documentary wins top Venice prizes
The Venice film festival ends on Saturday. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP
“Still Recording”, a documentary by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed Al Batal, records what happened to two idealistic art students after they were swept up in the fervour of the Syrian revolution. It picked up two awards at Venice Critics' Week.
Friends Saeed and Milad leave Damascus and go to Douma in 2011, a suburb under rebel control, to set up a radio station and recording studio. There they struggle to keep a flicker of hope and creativity alive as they endure fighting, siege and famine.
Ayoub and Al Batal, who shot 500 hours of footage, told AFP that with so little reporting coming out of Syria it was important to bear witness.
“We started doing this because there wasn't, and still isn't, an efficient working media in Syria because it's not allowed to enter and if it is, it's under the control of the regime,” said Al Batal.
“Art is nothing if it is not resistance, even if there isn't revolution… it is resistance against a huge amount of emotions you have got inside you. Emotions need to come out and expressing them through art can do that.”
The win comes as the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are preparing to launch an assault on Idlib, the northern province that is the last major stronghold of the rebel and jihadist groups which have been trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad for the past seven years.
Al Batal said the situation in Syria “is more dangerous than ever now” because the Russian military are more ruthless than Assad's badly trained soldiers.
“They know where to hit, and how to hit hard,” said Al Batal, who said the “media army behind them” was the same.