Ukraine journalist 'escapes from captors' in Syria

A Ukrainian journalist held for several months by kidnappers in Syria is safe in Damascus after fleeing from her captors on Monday, her family said.

Ankhar Kochneva, an Arabic speaker who was working as an assistant for Russian media, was kidnapped in early October. She has reportedly said she was held by opposition forces who treated her poorly.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry confirmed she was free and safe but declined to say if she had indeed escaped from her captors.

"She succeeded in escaping this morning and is currently in Damascus in safe hands," her nephew Dmytro Astafurov, told AFP.

"She was able to telephone us, she is safe and sound."

Ukraine's foreign ministry said Kochneva had made contact with Ukrainian officials. "She is free and we are expecting her to come to the Ukrainian embassy in Damascus tomorrow," spokesman Yevgen Perebyinis told AFP.

In an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti news agency from Syria, Kochneva said she was held near the central city of Homs and was treated poorly by her captors.

She escaped early on Monday morning and said she had to walk through mine fields on her trek to safety.

"I was held by the head of the military council of the Free Syrian Army," she said. "The first 40 days I was treated okay, but then they started to hurt me. It was bad, they live poorly themselves, and I was even worse off than they."

"It will take a lot of time and money to improve my health now," she said.

However Kochneva told Russian radio station Business FM that she plans to stay in Damascus and report on the conflict, in which she is an ardent supporter of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"I will stay here," she said. "The world is blind. I will do everything so that people find out what is really happening here."

A new entry also appeared Monday on a Russian-language Livejournal blog which Kochneva kept but which was later deleted. "Your Alice has returned from behind the looking glass," said the reopened blog, http://anhar.livejournal.com.

Kochneva's kidnapping was first made known in an online video in November, in which she spoke from Homs, and asked the Russian and Ukrainian governments to meet her kidnappers' demands.

Her captors demanded $50 million for her release, according to her relatives, though the sum was later reduced to $300,000.

Kochneva worked for a Russian-language television channel in Syria at time of her abduction. She frequently defended the Syrian regime on television and on her blog.

Amnesty International in December said that Syrian opposition leaders "need to secure Ankhar Kochneva's safe release immediately" and warned that hostage-taking is a war crime during an armed conflict.

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