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Spanish journalists freed after six-month Syrian kidnap ordeal

Hostages can be traded for other prisoners or cash. Criminals also target the press to exchange their captives for money

Two Spanish journalists who were kidnapped by an extremist group in Syria more than six months ago have been freed.

El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa and freelance photographer Ricardo García Vilanova were taken on 16 September in Tal Abyad, in the north-east of Syria. The men were held in the nearby town of Raqqa by Islamist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – a group formerly affiliated with al-Qa’ida.

After 194 days of captivity, the men were reunited with their families in Madrid on Sunday afternoon. Following months of silence, Monica García Prieto, Mr Espinosa’s wife, described her joy on Twitter. “Pure happiness,” she tweeted.

Mr Espinosa announced their release on Saturday evening through a phone call to his employers in Madrid. “We’re fine, both of us. Ricardo and I. Inform Monica and our parents,” he said. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, the two journalists thanked everybody for their work and support. “Thanks to all those who have worked and made it possible for us to return home,” said Mr Espinosa.

Ricardo García Vilanova, far left, and Javier Espinosa are reunited with their families in Madrid

No further details about their release have been given and it is unclear whether they escaped or were released.

The two men are just two of the 60-plus journalists detained, held hostage or missing in Syria. The country was named the deadliest in the world for journalists to operate by the Committee to Protect Journalists. More than 110 journalists have been killed since March 2011. 

The growth of extremist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has gone hand in hand with kidnapping of foreign journalists and aid workers, who they claim to be spies. Such hostages can be traded for other prisoners or cash. Criminal gangs also target the press in an attempt to exchange their captives for money. Hefty ransoms of up to $2m (£1.2m) have been paid for abducted journalists over the past few months.

Citizens from more than 10 countries, including Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, France and the US have been taken. Not all have received media attention. Most cases initially start under a media blackout to allow for negotiations.

Such a blackout was also in place following the abduction of Mr Espinosa and Mr García Vilanova, but after two months the family decided to go public. In December Mr Espinosa’s wife broadcast a heartfelt appeal to her husband’s kidnappers to release the two men.

A website that carries al-Qa’ida statements, the Hanein network, also issued a plea to the Islamic State in December. In a statement, it said the men were known to the group and described them as “men who risked their lives to report the truth”.