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Two Russians and Italian released by Syrian rebels

February 04, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko | This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

MOSCOW--Two Russians and an Italian held hostage by the Syrian armed opposition since mid-December were released, Russian officials said Monday.

The two Russians were exchanged on Sunday for rebel fighters held by the Syrian government, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told the Russia-24 TV news network. It was not clear whether similar arrangements were made for the Italian hostage.

The three were employees of a steel plant near the city of Homs in central Syria. "They were abducted as hostages by Syrian extremists Dec. 12 on the highway from the city of Homs to the city of Tartus in the west of Syria,” Lukashevich said.

[Updated 9:58 a.m. PST Feb. 4: "They put a bag on my head,” recalled one of the men, Viktor Gorelov, in a television interview at the Russian embassy in Damascus, where the released Russians were taken. “They didn’t beat us." He said he didn’t speak very much to his captors because he speaks only Russian.]

Russia has long been one of Syria's closest allies, and thousands of Russian citizens live and work in the country. Russia has stood behind Syrian leader Bashar Assad even as his fierce response to an uprising has alienated the United States and other countries. Russia has evacuated some of its citizens from Syria in recent weeks, but many remain.

The two released Russian hostages were identified as Viktor Gorelov and Abdesattar Hassun. The Russian embassy in Damascus said they had arrived there and were in good condition.

“They are feeling well and had not been mistreated in captivity,” an embassy official who gave his name only as Timur said in a telephone interview. “Viktor Gorelov will most likely proceed to Russia from here but Mr. Hassun, who also has Syrian citizenship, may stay in Syria.”

The Italian, identified as Mario Belluomo, will be turned over to Italian authorities by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the Russian ministry said on its website.

Russian officials had said in December that the captors had made ransom demands.

Syrian rebels are said to be still holding Anhar Kochneva, a Ukrainian journalist freelancing for Ukrainian and Russian media. Kochneva was captured early last October, also in the area of Homs. Her captors reportedly demanded $50 million for her release and threatened to kill her as a Russian spy.

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