Italian hostage freed in Syria

Mohammed Haj Kadour
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Alessandro Sandrini, 32, disappeared in October 2016 after going on holiday to Turkey

An Italian hostage was on his way home Wednesday after more than two years in captivity in Syria, where an unknown number of foreigners remain missing eight years into the country's devastating war.

Alessandro Sandrini, 32, disappeared in October 2016 after going on holiday to Turkey.

His hair buzzed short and salt-and-pepper beard neatly trimmed, he appeared at a press conference in the northern Syrian border town of Bab al-Hawa on Wednesday ahead of his announced crossing over to Turkey.

After speaking to journalists, he got into a car to be driven across the border, an AFP reporter said.

A representative of the jihadist-linked authorities in northwest Syria said the Italian had been held captive by an unnamed "group carrying out kidnappings".

They got in touch with the kidnappers through "informants" and negotiated until "the hostage was released", said Ahmed Latuff of the so-called Salvation Government.

"We immediately contacted the concerned parties to repatriate him," said the representative from the civilian branch of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Sitting quietly behind a table at the press conference, Sandrini recounted being abducted in the Turkish town of Adana.

"I lost my way to the hotel and found myself walking around the streets of Adana," he told journalists in Italian, wearing a stripey brown shirt.

- 'I felt drugged' -

Suddenly, "I felt someone putting something on my face. I felt drugged and I fell asleep," said Sandrini.

"I woke up in a room where there were two people who were armed and hooded."

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also announced the release.

"Our fellow countryman Alessandro Sandrini has been liberated following coordinated action in overseas territory," he said in a brief statement.

Italian media cited Sandrini's father as saying his son was still in Syria but in the hands of the Italian police.

"I am more than happy, it is the end of a nightmare," Gianfranco Sandrini said in a report on the La Repubblica website.

News of Sandrini's kidnapping only surfaced in the Italian press in August last year, saying he had been seized in October 2016 while on holiday in Turkey.

His mother broke the news blackout after receiving phone calls from her son.

In August last year, he appeared in a video pleading for help with masked gunmen standing behind him.

The video did not identify which group was holding him or include specific demands.

Rome prosecutors have opened an investigation into his kidnapping.

- Two criminal cases -

Media reports say it is expected that when he returns to his home town of Brescia, in the north, he will be confined to his residence because he is implicated in two criminal cases.

He faces one arrest warrant for handling stolen goods and another for a burglary in 2016 before he left for Turkey.

Sandrini is the second Italian to be released in Syria this year after businessman Sergio Zanotti last month.

The Salvation Government has previously publicised other foreigners leaving Syria after their alleged intervention.

Those freed late last year include a 54-year-old Argentinian woman who was lured into Syria on a marriage promise, and a four-year-old girl who was handed over to her Belgian mother after her father died.

HTS control the Idlib region of some three million people, parts of which have come under deadly bombardment by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally in recent weeks.

The United Nations has warned any full-blown assault would spark a humanitarian disaster.

Dozens of foreigners have been held hostage during Syria's eight-year civil war, including by the Islamic State jihadist group.

Syria's war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.