Iraq News
Refugees

Syrian in Lebanon warns of border gang abductions, ransom demands

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Syrians flee the city of al-Raqa for areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Reports have emerged that indicate some al-Raqa escapees trying to cross over into Lebanon have been abducted for ransom by a cross-border gang. [Photo courtesy of the Manbij Military Council]

A number of Syrian refugees have been kidnapped for ransom by a cross-border gang as they made their way to Lebanon, a refugee from al-Raqa told Diyaruna.

After the abduction, gang members contact relatives and acquaintances in Lebanon to demand ransom in exchange for their release, according to Saeed al-Raqawi, using a pseudonym out of concern for the safety of his family.

Based on information he provided to them, al-Raqawi said, Lebanese forces have managed to apprehend and arrest a number of members of the Syrian-Lebanese gang and free 25 refugees they were holding captive.

Al-Raqawi, who has relatives in al-Raqa city who are still trying to reach Damascus, told Diyaruna he fled al-Raqa for Lebanon more than a year ago.

Due to the deteriorating security situation and restrictions imposed by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), however, the departure of his father, mother and sister from al-Raqa was delayed.

After a long wait, he said, his family managed to escape from al-Raqa a few days ago. But as he waited for their arrival in Lebanon, he received a call from someone he did not know from a phone number he did not recognise.

The caller informed al-Raqawi that he had detained his family, and demanded that he pay a $500 ransom per person in exchange for their release.

Al-Raqawi then received another call from a person who introduced himself as Abu Farouq, during which he tried to ascertain that his family was safe and to negotiate the ransom amount with the kidnapper.

Al-Raqawi was not able to come up with the full $1,500 to free his three family members due to his constrained financial circumstances, he explained.

In a recording of the phone call al-Raqawi played for Diyaruna, the kidnapper says he "bought" the abductees for $300 per person from the driver of a car.

Al-Raqawi interpreted this move as a ploy on the part of the abductor to pressure him to pay the full ransom amount.

Lebanese authorities intervene

After the call from Abu Farouq, al-Raqawi went to the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) and passed on the information he had to them.

"They acted on the information, and after conducting an investigation, an ISF intelligence unit raided the gang’s headquarters in Bar Elias on July 20th, and arrested a number of Lebanese and Syrian kidnappers," he said.

Other gang members fled, and a search is ongoing for them, he said.

As a result of the raid, the ISF was able to free 25 men, women and children the gang had been holding for ransom.

As for his family's departure from al-Raqa, al-Raqawi said it was done in stages.

First, he said, the family paid a Syrian smuggler 400,000 Syrian pounds ($1,866) per person to get them to Damascus, in a two-day journey that was part on foot and part by car.

Another smuggler then transported them by car to a barren area of the Lebanese border near al-Masnaa crossing, and they entered Lebanon on foot.

A taxi driver was waiting for them inside Lebanon, and promptly handed them over to the gang.

"The smugglers in Syria were undoubtedly involved in the kidnapping, because the times of arrival and rendezvous points were known only by those who co-ordinated the journey with my family inside Syria," he said.

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